Monday, May 19, 2014

The Evolution of the Niche

Of all the architectural features of the Old Senate Chamber, one of the most remarkable is the niche, a crescent-shaped indent in the wall situated opposite the entrance. While almost every other point in the room will be recreated to resemble its eighteenth-century appearance, the niche has miraculously survived centuries of makeovers and is one of the only original features of the room. Which of course, begs the question, how did the niche, where Thomas Mifflin once sat to famously receive Washington’s commission, survive?

Elevation drawing of the niche by J. Appleton Wilson, c. 1905. Image courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

The niche was first conceived during the construction of the third (and current) State House between 1772-1779 as a location for the President of the Senate. The room, constructed in the Palladian style popular at the time, emphasized symmetry above all else. The door that led to the Senate Committee Room, for instance, was balanced out with a fake door on the opposite side of the fireplace. Likewise, the main entrance to the room was mirrored by a niche, situated on top of a platform known as the dais. The spot was intended for the President of the Senate to sit and preside over meetings of the legislature, ironically creating an elevated space that resembled a throne.

Detailed floor place of the State House from the Columbian Magazine, 1789. The Old Senate Chamber's niche and dais are on the lower-right corner of the plan and labeled as "A." This floor plan also make the precise symmetry of the State House particularly obvious. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1556-1-121.

Photograph of the Old Senate Chamber, showing the covered niche, c.1886. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1556-1116.

By the time the 1876-78 renovations were completed, much of the original architectural features of the room had been removed. Pieces which were in large part responsible for the eighteenth-century character, such as the fireplace (which had already been taken down in 1859) and the gallery, were disassembled. The niche, however, remarkably got a pass. Instead of being completely filled in, it was covered by a wall and fabric was draped in front of it to bring it up to the Victorian fashion of the rest of the room.

The niche and dais, as restored in the 1904-1906 restoration, published in The Inland Architect and News Record, Vol. XLVII, No. 3 (April 2006). Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 5914-1.

When J. Appleton Wilson began the restoration of the Old Senate Chamber in the early twentieth-century, the Colonial Revival architect was doubtless relieved to discover the niche hidden behind the Victorian fabric. Wilson restored the niche, re-opened the fireplace, and recreated the gallery in what would be the first attempt in the twentieth century to restore the Old Senate Chamber to its original appearance. Reviews of Wilson’s work on the niche were favorable, and the niche became romanticized as a key figure in the resignation drama. Not long after the completion of the room in 1905, the Baltimore News wrote, “Washington, standing at the foot of the Colonial rostrum, resigned his commission as commander in chief of the Continental armies, which he had led to victory against the British. This spot, more sacred to the hearts of patriotic Marylanders than all others, is at the opposite side of the room from the entrance, and is marked by the same little half-moon platform fitted back in the circular niche as in Colonial days."[1]

The niche as it appeared in 2009. In the corner of the niche, you can see where paint analysis was being done to determine the original paint color of the room. Image courtesy of Jay Baker, 25 September 2009.

Today, the niche has become one of the most significant aspects of the room for study. Modern paint analysis on the niche has proven that it, along with some surrounding pilasters and molding, is an original part of the room. Thus, the niche has provided our architectural historians with not only the original eighteenth-century paint color, but also details of some aspects of molding in the room. While there is not much we can tell you about what the Old Senate Chamber is going to look like when you see it this December, we can tell you that much of the room's restored architectural design is all thanks to the niche!

[1] “State House As It Now Appears,” Baltimore News, 26 December 1905.

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