Friday, February 28, 2014

“The Sound of Fiddles,” Balls on State Circle

The ball for Washington, while most well-known, was far from the only celebration in Annapolis. In fact, contemporary accounts say there was a public ball at least twice a month during the city’s social season in the winter. Congressional delegates and passers-through to Annapolis in the eighteenth-century expressed delight at the entertainments of the city.

Annapolis in 1750 by Francis Blackwell Mayer, 1876, shows a romanticized depiction of a social scene between two prominent Maryland families - the Calverts and the Carrolls. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 4680-10-0064.

When he first arrived in Annapolis as the Surveyor of Customs, under the protection of the Royal Governor, Robert Eden, William Eddis couldn’t help but describe the balls with some awe. “During the winter,” he remarked, “there are assemblies every fortnight; the room for dancing is large; the construction elegant; and the whole illuminated to great advantage. At each extremity are apartments for the card tables, where select companies enjoy the circulation of the party-coloured gentry, without having their attention diverted by the sound of fiddles, and the evolutions of youthful performers."[1]

From his description, it can be assumed that Eddis was most likely attending an event at the Annapolis Assembly Rooms, now the Municipal Building on Duke of Gloucester street. However, few people know that there were actually two public ballrooms in Annapolis! The Assembly Rooms, the larger of the two, was the most well-known and likely the one in which guests had dinner before the grand State House ball held in honor of Washington on December 22, 1783. The second, while smaller, served a fascinating multitude of purposes during its life. It went by many names - most often the Armory or the Conference Chamber, and served an essential function to the city and state.

The Conference Chamber was constructed in 1718, and was intended as both storage for arms and ammunition, as well as a place for the Royal Governor and Council to meet. After the Constitution of 1776 created the Maryland Senate, that body (and the Governor and Council) continued to use the room until 1779, when they relocated to the Old Senate Chamber in the newly-constructed State House. As one of the most important governmental buildings in the state, there is little doubt that the Conference Chamber was well-furnished and suited for the social entertainments of Annapolis high-society.

Throughout this time, the Conference Chamber had a second significant role - as an Armory. One survey in 1768 noted that the building contained well over a hundred muskets, along with halberts, pikes, trumpets, broad swords, daggers, and cutlasses.[2] During the Revolutionary War, the Armory served an essential role for storing and maintaining weapons for the Continental Army.

The Conference Chamber, center, is the most recognizable in an engraving attributed to Charles Willson Peale, 1789. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 194-3.

In her recollections of eighteenth-century Annapolis, Rebecca Key perhaps offered the best description of the Armory:
The Armory stood at the north side at an equal distance from the Court House, a large hall, the walls covered with arms above the seats which were all around the room. A seat opposite the door for the Governor and his lady over which hung a full length portrait of Queen Anne. Nearly opposite to this picture hung another, a full length portrait of the Proprietor, Lord Baltimore, in his flowing robes. Being used for a ballroom as well as an armory, a wooden gilt chandelier depended from the vaulted roof and the lights interspersed among the arms, gave it on ball nights a very splendid appearance. Three other apartments were appropriated one to the card parties, one to the supper, and the other to the armorer. The Armory was also used as a Council Chamber when the Assembly sat. [3]
By 1769, William Eddis had a decidedly less romantic view of the building. He wrote to a friend in England, declaring that: “In our little metropolis, the public buildings do not impress the mind with any idea of magnificence, having been chiefly erected during the infancy of the colony, when convenience was the directing principle, without attention to the embellishment of art…The council chamber is a detached building adjacent to the former, on a very humble scale.”[4]

By the early nineteenth-century, the fate of the Conference Chamber would become somewhat mysterious. After the Senate left the building, it largely disappeared from state records. However, it almost certainly remained on the grounds, adjacent to the State House, for quite some time. The last possible reference to the Conference Chamber was in 1836, when the House of Delegates appropriated $150 to repair “the Chamber commonly called the old Armory and furnishing the same as a Committee room for the use of the House of Delegates.”[5] By 1840, when Rebecca Key described the building in the past tense, it had very likely disappeared. The Conference Chamber, which had at one point been the political, social, and military center of Maryland, had served its purpose.

[1] Letter III, Letters from America, Historical and Descriptive; Compromising Occurrences from 1769, to 1777, inclusive by William Eddis. London, 1792.
[2] Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, 1766-1768, Lower House Journal, Archives of Maryland, Volume 61, pages 363-365.
[3] “A Notice of Some of the First Buildings With Notes of Some of the Early Residents," Maryland Historical Magazine. Vol XIV, p. 264-265.
[4] Letter II, Letters from America, Historical and Descriptive; Compromising Occurrences from 1769, to 1777, inclusive by William Eddis. London, 1792.
[5] Radoff, Morris. The State House at Annapolis. Annapolis, MD: Hall of Records Commission of the State of Maryland, 1972, p. 53.

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