Monday, April 28, 2014

Portrait for the Revolution

Many famous works of art have at one time or another decorated the walls of the Old Senate Chamber. From portraits of the four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence, to Charles Willson Peale's Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman at Yorktown, and Edwin White’s massive Washington Resigning His Commission, the Old Senate Chamber has undergone a multitude of aesthetic changes.

One painting, though, has a particular connection to the room. Charles Willson Peale’s portrait of William Pitt has been in the hands of the state of Maryland since 1774 and was one of the original art pieces to decorate the Old Senate Chamber. While Congress was in session in Annapolis between 1783-1784, it was the Pitt portrait that overlooked such momentous events as George Washington’s resignation and the ratification of the Treaty of Paris.

Charles Willson Peale's William Pitt in the Maryland state art collection. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1113.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The State House's Artist: Francis Blackwell Mayer

When walking through the historic State House, many visitors do not realize that its appearance today was in great part influenced by one man. From the art in the Victorian Old House of Delegates Chamber to the early twentieth-century restoration of the Old Senate Chamber, Francis Blackwell Mayer (1827-1899) was truly a key player in Maryland’s nineteenth-century art community. It would be impossible to give an account of the State House’s history without mentioning one of its most fascinating contributors to both the building’s preservation and artwork.

Francis Blackwell Mayer's The Planting of the Colony of Maryland, 1893, can be seen hanging in the Old House of Delegates chamber alongside his other work, The Burning of the Peggy Stewart. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1125.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Desecration of the Old Senate Chamber

Readers of last week’s blog entry may have noticed an event in the Old Senate Chamber’s history that forever left its mark on the appearance of the room. Known to some historians today as “the desecration,” the phrase was used in Elihu Samuel Riley's 1905 work, A History of the General Assembly of Maryland. Calling the renovations, "an act of historic sacrilege," Riley supposedly, "stood in the midst of the Chamber, when the desecration was in progress, and declared: 'This ought not to be done.'"[1]

On March 30, 1876, the General Assembly approved an appropriation of $32,000 for the “repair and improvement of the State House.”[2] In the next two years, under the supervision of Baltimore architect George A. Frederick, drastic changes were made to the historic rooms in order to preserve the safety of the building while updating the building’s style to a Victorian aesthetic. Unfortunately, these changes ultimately hid or destroyed several original architectural details throughout the State House.

The Old Senate Chamber, as it appeared after the 1876-1878 renovations. Most notable in this picture is the re-opening of two windows at the front of the room and the disappearance of the niche, covered with elaborate drapery in keeping with the Victorian aesthetic. Printer in Souvenir Album, General Assembly of Maryland, 1898 Session, MSA SC 5788.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Living Shrine, The OSC in the Nineteenth-Century

The life of the Old Senate Chamber did not stop on December 23, 1783 when George Washington resigned his commission. In fact, while seeking to restore the room to how it appeared in the months that Congress was in session at the Maryland State House, researchers have had to look at the entire history of the room - stretching all the way through the nineteenth-century and into the present day. Though the Old Senate Chamber would change dramatically over the years, its status as the room where Washington appeared before Congress was never completely forgotten. Even as early as 1823, Maryland politicians were discussing placing a bronze statue of Washington in the Old Senate Chamber “upon the very spot where he resigned.”[1]

A detail of one of the earliest known stereocards of the Old Senate Chamber, c.1868, before renovations in the 1870s, taken by William M. Chase. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 5907-1-1.

Before the renovations between 1876-1878 that considerably altered the appearance of the room (known to some historians today as “the desecration”), the Old Senate Chamber had already dramatically changed since 1783. New, fashionable Empire-style desks were added in 1838 to replace the John Shaw desks supplied in the 1790s. Portraits of the four signers decorated the room, and a carpet was added in 1856. In 1858, the fireplace was taken out to make way for Edwin White’s Washington Resigning, the massive size of which inevitably made it a focal point of the room, consistently earning a mention in nearly every account until its move to the grand staircase in 1904.