Friday, October 10, 2014

Building the State House: Charles Wallace and the Old Senate Chamber

The answer to the question of who built the Maryland State House may be more complicated than you might imagine. While Joseph Horatio Anderson is commonly considered to be the original architect, and provided some of the first floor plans, he did not actually supervise the construction of the building. On June 20, 1771, the Maryland General Assembly contracted a somewhat unexpected individual to undertake the actual construction after Joseph Horatio Anderson had left. Charles Wallace, an Annapolitan, and one-third of the successful eighteenth-century mercantile firm, Wallace, Davidson & Johnson, agreed to take on what would become one of his most famous projects.[1]

Front elevation of the Maryland State House, by Charles Willson Peale, July 1788. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1051-2.

When Wallace agreed to the contract, it was quickly evident how surprising a choice he was for the task. Joshua Johnson wrote to John Davidson of their partner, “I was surprised to find our Charles Wallace had undertaken the Public Building,” but added, “I heartily wish him well through it and nothing in my power shall be wanting to facilitate his plan.”[2] For the construction of a public building, Wallace’s mercantile business connections became a huge advantage, allowing him direct access to many import items.

By eighteenth-century standards, the first phase of construction under Wallace moved at an impressive pace. In 1772, only a year after Royal Governor Robert Eden laid the cornerstone of the State House, Wallace announced that the basement and first story were up, and the second story was raised the following year.[3]

Detailed floor plan of the State House from the Columbian Magazine, 1789. Charles Wallace's galleries are represented by dotted lines in the two bottom rooms: today, the Old Senate Chamber and Old House of Delegates Chamber. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1556-1-121.

Soon after, however, Wallace’s problems began. There was great conflict over what supplies should be used for the roof - which delayed the project nearly a full year and exposed the second story rooms to the elements. In September 1775, lightning struck the dome of the State House, causing significant damage. Soon after, political tensions and the resulting war slowed construction due to the prevention of imports and desertion of Wallace’s workforce. In 1777, Wallace complained, “...when the British fleet appeared in our Bay all my workmen left me and fled from the City to the interior parts of the State...I could not thereafter draw together one fourth part of the sufficient Number of Workmen.”[4]

Proposal from Charles Wallace to erect a gallery in each House of Assembly, 1777. Maryland State Archives, MSA S 1004-18-3500.

All the same, Wallace’s contributions are well-remembered in the State House to this day. In 1777, Wallace made his most memorable addition to the Old Senate Chamber when he requested permission to “erect a Gallery & Stair Case in each House of Assembly,” creating the famous gallery that will be reconstructed in the room, opening this December.[5]

By November 1779, the project was nearing completion and Wallace, after years of obstacles, requested permission to leave the project. A committee was formed to assess whether Wallace had fulfilled his part of the contract, and reported, “The committee have examined the stadt-house throughout, and are of opinion, that many parts thereof are finished with more elegance than was required by the contract, particularly the front door, great hall, and court, the senate house and house of assembly, the president’s and speaker’s seats, and the galleries. The other parts of the building appear to be done in a masterly and workmanlike manner, except the upper floor over the senate house, which is indifferent.”[6] Ultimately, Joseph Clark was hired as the architect of the dome and roof, which was then completed by John Shaw in 1796.

Stereoview by William M. Chase, 1868, showing Charles Wallace's original gallery. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 182-2-501.

Though Wallace did not see out the full completion of the building, his influence as undertaker of the construction has made his name inevitably synonymous with the history of the third Maryland State House. When you walk into the restored Old Senate Chamber this December, don’t forget that the gallery Molly Ridout stood on to watch Washington resign his commission was the contribution of one merchant whose work on the historic Maryland State House largely stood the test of time.

[1] Radoff, Morris L., The State House At Annapolis. Annapolis, MD: Hall of Records Commission, 1972, p.7.
[2] Jacob M. Price, ed., Joshua Johnson's Letterbook, 1771-1774: Letters From a Merchant in London to his Partners in Maryland (London: London Record Society, 1979), 3-5.
[3] Radoff, p.8.
[4] Radoff, p.9.
[5] Maryland State Papers (Series A), MSA S 1004-18-3500, 6636-15-193A.
[6] Votes and Proceedings of the House of Delegates, November Session, 28 December 1779, Archives of Maryland Online, p.78.

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