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.

As Frederick began to work on the State House, he quickly realized the building was in a state of serious disrepair. An entirely new slate roof was required to protect the building from leakage and many of the floors and ceilings were determined to be uneven. In the Old Senate Chamber, large aesthetic renovations were made as part of the building-wide overhaul. The original fireplace had already been closed to accommodate Washington Resigning His Commission in 1859. In the 1876-1878 work, two windows by the president’s dais would be reopened. Furnishings, meanwhile, became more elaborate. A heavy red carpet and matching curtains were brought in, and gilding was added to the cornice. One article reported, “The President’s desk is of ash, oiled, and panels varnished, with red leather covering on top. The clerk’s desk is of the same material. Senators’ desks are separate, also of ash, oiled, and the chairs match, and are cushioned in dark red morocco.”[3]

Perhaps most controversially, as part of the renovations, the historic original gallery had been removed. As local legend has it, a descendant of John Randall, who had supposedly worked on the State House in the eighteenth century, was a laborer under George A. Frederick at the time of the gallery’s dismantling. Just twelve years old at the time, Daniel R. Randall was said to have spent his first pay on two of the original columns of the gallery. After being laughed at by his family for not bringing home his pay, he stored them in his hay loft, should the state have need of them one day.[4]

The original niche, remarkably, was saved. Instead of removing the room’s famous architectural feature, Frederick had merely covered the niche to match the Victorian aesthetic, leaving it hidden, but fully intact. Today, the niche is the only original architectural feature that is visible to visitors.

Reactions to the Old Senate Chamber were perhaps best summed up by an article in the Baltimore Sun: “The Senate chamber, around which so many memories cluster, is no longer in appearance the historic room in which Gen. Washington resigned his commission….When one looks on [Washington Resigning His Commission] and then on the reality he can understand why the old soldier - Washington’s faithful orderly - weeps. Nevertheless, those who do not concern themselves with the past, and they are the multitude in these days, will rejoice to find such sumptuous quarters…”[5]

View of the back of the Old Senate Chamber. Most visible changes in this view include the new chandelier and the removal of the gallery. Printer in Souvenir Album, General Assembly of Maryland, 1898 Session, MSA SC 5788.

The project quickly became controversial as it went seriously over budget, costing upwards of $100,000. The public dissatisfaction with the alterations made to the historic room and, particularly, the enormous expense attracted the attention of the press. The Maryland legislature responded by beginning an investigation and receiving the testimonies of laborers, the architects, and artisans working on the project -- making the 1876-1878 renovations some of the best recorded work in the State House’s history. The Select Committee to Investigate the Repairs upon the State House resolved that no one person was to blame, citing that the legislature was not aware of the enormity of safety repairs required to maintain the State House when crafting the budget.

The 1878 appearance of the room did not last long. Just sixteen years later, the Maryland legislature asked Colonial Revival architect J. Appleton Wilson to investigate the possibility of restoring the Old Senate Chamber back to its original eighteenth century appearance alongside Annapolis historian Francis Blackwell Mayer. However, the impact of the 1870s renovations on all later incarnations of the room cannot be ignored. Though Wilson’s 1905-1907 restoration was relatively successful for the time, many of the original features had already been lost.

[1]  Riley, Elihu Samuel, A History of the General Assembly of Maryland, 1634-1904. Baltimore: Nunn & Co. Publishers, 1905, p.391.
[2] Archives of Maryland Online, 1876, Laws of Maryland, ch. 194 p. 303-304.
[3] “Affairs at the State Capitol,” Baltimore Sun, 1 January 1878.
[4] Richard H. Randall’s handwritten notes in a copy of J. Appleton Wilson’s The Maryland State House, 1927. Item in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society.
[5] “Affairs at the State Capitol,” Baltimore Sun.

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