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What's Up Magazine

City on the Severn

Oct 11, 2011 06:27PM ● By Anonymous

The City Preserved 1960 to 1975
By Jane Wilson McWilliams

“If you came to Annapolis after 1975, this book is for you,” says historian, editor, and writer Jane McWilliams when speaking about her recently published book, Annapolis, City on the Severn. The 478-page book covers the time period from 1649 to 1975.

“It took me a few months past 12 years to research and write,” says McWilliams, who began the book published by The Johns Hopkins University Press in March of 1997, “and I am very grateful to all those people who helped me with the research. I hope you can look at this book and have some aha moments. It is my gift to the city.” - Nadja Maril

The 1960s in Annapolis, as in the rest of the country, roiled with emotions often in conflict—anger, enthusiasm, fear, resolve, exuberance. Nationally, it was the era of civil rights, school integration, the Vietnam War, legislative reapportionment, urban renewal. Locally it was all of these and more, much more. For it was during this decade that Annapolis finally decided on its future, and took steps to get there. As had been the case in the seventh decade of the previous three centuries—the first port act of the 1660s, the golden age of the 1760s, the Civil War of the 1860s—the 1960s proved pivotal to the city’s development.

Plans, conferences, committees, meetings—all were ubiquitous in the 1960s Annapolis; and outside experts, state officials, and locals with agendas of their own all had a hand in shaping the city’s decisions. Important, too, were the federal laws and federal dollars. During the ’60s, the Annapolis government gave up a good bit of its self-determination. On some matters it had no choice: federal legislation on issues such as civil rights, desegregation, and reapportionment trumped local laws and policies. But in other cases, the city submitted itself to federal regulations voluntarily, in the hope of financing solutions to its most persistent problem—decent housing for all its people—and realization of its new passion, preservation of historic structures. And, as had been the case in those pivotal years of the previous centuries, the population of the city grew and attitudes and desires changed.

At the end of the 1950s, Annapolis had three commercial marinas: the Annapolis Yacht Basin on Compromise Street, Arnie Gay’s yard at the end of Shipwright Street, and Smitty’s at the Back Creek end of Sixth Street in Eastport. A young veteran living in Eastport named Jerry Wood had a couple of small wooden sailboats at Smitty’s that he rented out to people who answered the ad he’d placed in the Washington Post. When Wood found that most of these folks couldn’t sail, “he started doing lessons,” remembered his associate Rick Franke.

“Then it occurred to him that if we’re going to do this, we may as well organize it.” The Annapolis Sailing School opened in 1959, and by 1963 Wood was producing a school boat he called the Rainbow. A 24-foot keeled Sparkman and Stephens sloop, the Rainbow was probably the second model sailboat designed, as Franke says, “from the ground up to be built in fiberglass.”

The popularity of small sailboat racing brought the recently formed Severn Sailing Association (SSA) from Round Bay to Sycamore Point in 1957 and gave those Washington sailors another reason to come to Annapolis. SSA ran regattas, a spring series, Wednesday night racing, and a junior instruction program from their new dredged and bulkheaded facility at the end of First Street. The first national small-boat sailing championship races on the Chesapeake, the Adam’s Cup, were held by SSA in the fall of 1960. Across Spa Creek, the intrepid sailors of Annapolis Yacht Club initiated seasonal Wednesday night races in 1959 and during the winter of 1962–1963 started an annual frostbite series, in Rainbows rented from Jerry Wood. Their old clubhouse, with its badly slanted dance floor, gave way to a new structure on more secure pilings in 1963. The club also hosted the Annapolis chapter of the U.S. Power Squadron, many members of which docked their motor cruisers at the adjoining Yacht Basin. African-American boaters, most of them from Washington, founded the Seafarers Yacht Club in 1960; seven years later they bought the old Third Street Elementary School and renovated it as their clubhouse.

Boating in the ’60s was enormously popular. Fiberglass and other synthetic materials opened yachting to people who had not wanted to invest in the time or money required to maintain wooden boats. With boats made of fiberglass and Dacron or nylon sails, it was “easy for people who did not live in Annapolis to have a boat.” New fiberglass one-design sailboats revolutionized yachting, bringing both cruising and competitive sailing within reach for hundreds of willing Bay skippers. Arnie Gay showed off an Alberg 30 in his yard in 1964, and within months ten local sailors had put in their orders for the Canadian-built boats and organized themselves for “joint cruising and keen one-design racing.” Soon there were more Albergs on the Bay than anywhere else in the country.

Leisure time, good salaries, and quick access along the new Washington-Annapolis Expressway (Route 50) made a weekend in Annapolis, or even a day on the Bay, an easy vacation for workers in the expanding federal bureaucracy. And by the early 1960s, Anne Arundel County itself had industries bringing people to the area. Westinghouse Electric Corporation had located its Air Arm Division near the new Friendship International Airport in 1951 and, pleased with the areas amenities, including its recreational opportunities, had expanded. In 1965 the company was about to embark on a “multi-million dollar ocean research and engineering facility” near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Of 13,000 Westinghouse employees in central Maryland, some 5,200 lived in Anne Arundel County. The city of Annapolis had welcomed the two hundred employees of Farm Bureau Insurance Company’s regional office who arrived in 1952 and settled into their new brick building on Chinquapin Round Road. Hoping for more such business, the city rezoned the grid between Chinquapin and Legion Avenues from residential to industrial.

Both the county and the city perked up when word came in 1964 that Aeronautical Radio, Inc., was interested in moving its operation from Montgomery County to Annapolis. Groundbreaking for the $1 million ARINC facility in the new Annapolis Science center on Riva Road took place in February 1965.

Described as a company that “specializes in electronic, mechanical and structural reliability and systems effectiveness and serves NASA, the military agencies and others,” ARINC’s reported $2.5 million payroll and three hundred workers would be an asset to any jurisdiction. When the company and its neighboring businesses demanded water and sewerage, which the city could easily supply, the mayor and aldermen decided to annex the entire 330-acre parole area and rip that tax-rich emerging edge city from county coffers. Nasty words were spoken in the halls of both governments. When the county hastily built a sewage treatment plant on Truman Parkway, the city backed off and the edge city continued its growth under county control.

If the lure of the water became compelling, sailors found they could enjoy it all the time from a new garden apartment in Eastport and drive that D.C. commute in the other direction. Americana Apartments (1960) and Severn House (1964) lay along the western shore of Back Creek; Admiral Farragut (1963) and Harbour House (1964) were not far from Spa Creek. A few years later the condominium craze brought townhouses to the head of Back Creek off of Bay Ridge Avenue. The name—Georgetown East—reveals the developers’ marketing strategy. Upping the Ante in 1968 was Tecumseh, the first waterfront high-rise condominium on Spa Creek. Multistory Tecumseh townhouses, backed to Severn Avenue, embraced a private marina in their midst—a unique (for Annapolis) combination of housing for people and boats. This was the first Annapolis project of Paul M. Pearson II, a polo-playing Washington entrepreneur who saw Annapolis first as a cash cow and later as a treasure. When townhouse owners complained about Herbie Sadler’s noisy boatyard and crab shack at the end of Third Street next door, Sadler told them, “I was here first.” Tecumseh put up a fence. It was the beginning of a new era in Eastport.

It is impossible to sort out just how much of the city’s population growth between 1950 and 1960 (133 percent) was made up of new residents and not the longtime residents of the land annexed in 1951, but a significant portion of the 29 percent population increase from 1960 to 1970 was more clearly the result of in-migration. The large number of housing units constructed during the decade testify to the conclusion.

Annapolis residents of the 1960s, slightly older, with slightly fewer children and significantly larger incomes than their 1950s counterparts, stimulated a new interest in the arts. For much the same reasons that theater had been so successful in Annapolis two centuries earlier—leisure time, disposable income, education—the performing and visual arts flourished during the 1960s. Organizations established during those years laid the groundwork for succeeding decades of artistic expression.

The Colonial Players preceded the 1960s renaissance. Formed just before the Tercentenary celebration in 1949—hence their name—the Players’ first performance, in June of that year, in the former USO building on St. Mary’s Street, began a tradition of exceptional amateur theater in Annapolis that continues to this day.

The town’s two colleges contributed actors, directors, and backstage workers (many of whom had professional theater experience) to the local talent pool. In the mid-1950s, Colonial Players created a 110-seat theater in an abandoned garage on East Street and learned to play in the round. Loyal supporters applauded when the theater was renovated and enlarged ten years later to accommodate more ambitious productions. With the backing of the Players, the Children’s Theater of Annapolis opened in 1958 to attract young actors and audiences.

In 1961, Kenneth Page, band and music teacher at Annapolis High School, gathered other music teachers and some Naval Academy bandsmen into a community orchestra that met in the basement of Trinity Methodist Church on West Street. For its first concert, held in 1962 in St. John’s College’s new Francis Scott Key Memorial Hall, the orchestra was joined by local singers under the directions of Jean Ressler, director of Presbyterian Church choir. The two groups formed the Annapolis Symphony Choral Society and performed at an annual concert series in Annapolis High School’s auditorium beginning with the 1963–64 season.

From the Colonial Players’ 1965 production of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, directed by Ben Wills. Appearing in the photo (left to right): Doug Bowers, Dory Fahey, and Joe Martin.


Recognizing that the musicians needed someone to handle logistics, 50 volunteers met in October 1964 and organized Friends of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra (FASO). Players and singers parted ways in 1967 to become the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Annapolis Choral Society, respectively. When Ken Page died two years later, FASO was instrumental in bringing nationally known pianist Leon Fleisher in as conductor. Suffering from dystonia in his right hand, Fleisher had turned to conducting, and in 1970 he agreed to hone his new skills on the Annapolis orchestra.

Under Fleisher, remembered violinist Lorraine Wycherley Shaw, the ASO changed from a “small community orchestra to a professional orchestra,” and a number of local musicians were cut when he instituted auditions. The Choral Society did not endure, but some of its singers joined the Annapolis Chorale, established in 1973 under the direction of James A. Dale, organist and assistant director of music at the Naval Academy.

Beth Whaley, then president of Colonial Players, went to that first concert of the Annapolis orchestra and choral society in 1962 and thought, “if the two of them can do that, why can’t we get all the arts together?” Acting on that thought, at intermission she “broached it to some people in the lobby: ‘What do you think?’ ‘Sure, why shouldn’t we?’ So it was as simple as that.” Whaley gathered a steering committee, plans were made, lots of people got involved, and in March 1963 the first Annapolis Fine Arts Festival brought art, music, drama, and poetry to the St. John’s College campus for two exciting days. “The town was a little dull in those days,” said Whaley. Crowds turned out, delighted to see the richness and variety of arts in Annapolis. The festival “was a way to encourage all of the arts”—inspiring participants and attracting the public’s attention to them.

After two years at St. John’s, Annapolis Fine Arts Festival board member Joan Baldwin suggested moving the event to the city dock. With cooperation from the city, the Naval Academy, and hundreds of volunteers, the Fine Arts Festival in June 1965 featured not only Annapolis-area performers and artists but national stars Van Cliburn and Count Basie. The first such gathering to utilize the city dock, the festival changed the way residents and visitors viewed the downtown waterfront. Now it was an entertainment venue, and Annapolis itself was part of the fun. Over the next decade the festival brought color and excitement to the city dock. The children’s “Discovery Tent,” where youngsters could play and paint and explore their own artistic talents, the performances by groups from around the area, art exhibits, and big name entertainment made the event a local must-see and a major tourist attraction. “One of our stated goals, right from the very beginning at St. John’s, was to work for a cultural center for Annapolis,” said Whaley, and in 1979, long after the festival had moved from the dock and died out, its remaining resources helped turn the 1932 Annapolis High School into Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

Focusing attention on community talent resulted in just what festival organizers had hoped for: more artistic events and more enthusiastic audiences. Forty-two area artists joined together to form the Maryland Federation of Art in 1963, and five years later opened their first gallery in a loft off State Circle. Dancer Grace Clark, who had taught locally for a number of years, founded the Annapolis Civic Ballet in 1966. And that same year, the Summer Garden Theatre—Joan Baldwin, Tony Maggio, Al Tyler, and a cast of volunteers—presented Brigadoon in the parking area behind the by-then-defunct Carvel Hall. The following year the theater leased the old Shaw blacksmith shop on Compromise Street—cobwebs, mud, pigeons, and all—and began a summer tradition.

Participation in the arts in Annapolis, whether as a performer or support crew, made natives proud of their town and helped new residents feel at home, make friends, and become part of the community. In those days when many women did not work out of the home, volunteering in the arts gave mothers, young and older, a rewarding outlet for their creativity and talents. Many of these volunteering women also applied their talents to historic preservation and progressive politics, becoming a critical force in the public life of the city.

What’s Up? would like to thank Jane McWilliams and Johns Hopkins University Press. For sale at local bookstores, you can also order a copy online at