Back Talk: Robert Clark
Dec 03, 2013 12:26PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Taking the reins from retired Historic Annapolis President John Guild in September 2012, Robert Clark landed a role that fits him perfectly. The sixth generation Annapolitan exhibits a love of early American history—particularly all things Jeffersonian—in every way possible, citing historical minutiae on a whim or recounting with gusto the story of Annapolis painter (and one of the city’s first preservationists) Francis Mayer.
A full year into this role, which started as interim and now is cemented, Clark is leading the next generation of city preservationists, intent on conserving historically significant properties, structures, and aesthetics. Though primarily focused on capital funding for Historic Annapolis and its many educational programs, Clark has found himself in the middle of controversial topics tied to City Dock development. And though Clark entertains all viewpoints, he confidently believes that four centuries of “smart decisions made by smart people” is a guiding principle toward maintaining the integrity of Annapolis’ historic scope. We learned more about Clark’s growing role with Historic Annapolis, its current mission, some history, and even a joke or two during our recent interview that was nothing short of engaging and enjoyable.
How has your first year in the position been?
What has been particularly gratifying for me is the team here—about 30ish people—has accepted me. I believe Annapolis has long been respectful of Historic Annapolis and I feel that; I feel the support. Our plans and ambitions continue to evolve. We had the opportunity to weigh in on the City Dock issue and I think our comments were warmly received.
Do you feel you have citizen support for your position on such controversial topics?
Yes, I do. Obviously people can take parts of the City Dock [Master] Plan that affect them personally, economically, or emotionally. We won’t all agree on all things. With regards to changing ordinances, we took a strong opposition to that. The one thing I’ve learned in my year is that Annapolis looks the way it does—the environment, the community we all enjoy—because of the smart decisions that were made by all the smart people that came before us.
There’s a lineage of good decision making.
Well there is and we’re still working on this; coming up with a summary of what Historic Annapolis is all about. And our most recent version is “Historic Annapolis is a promise.” We promise that we’re going to respect the thoughts and actions of the citizens and smart people that came before us and recognize that what we all enjoy here is not an accident.
I look at this painting over here [points to an oil painting] by Francis Mayer—a painter here in Annapolis during the 1870s, 1880s. And we’re sitting in his studio. This is where he painted. That painting is of the view from this window right here [points to window]. And it hasn’t changed since he painted it.
How did your passion for history develop?
I’ve been a collector of early American copper coins for a very long time—Colonial things. I’m a fan of things Jefferson. And the history of being a sixth generation Annapolitan, from David Clark landing here from Northern Ireland in the 1790s to work for Declaration signer Charles Carroll. I’d have to fall off a log to screw that up. It’s clearly in my DNA.
What do you think Historic Annapolis can become for the next generation?
I go back to Historic Annapolis being a promise. At the same time, I think we have opportunities to be supportive of the City because if you’ve never been to Annapolis or haven’t been lately, you come here with some expectations. That’s where Historic Annapolis’ promise comes into play. Annapolis was a really big deal in the birth of a nation. Only a couple blocks from here, a guy who could’ve been king, said “no thank you.” And the guy who lived in the house that we office in, William Paca, was governor and took a chair from his house to the old Senate chamber for General Washington to sit in. That’s good stuff for the visitor experience and good for Annapolis in so many ways.
And for how long do you plan to continue in this position?
[Laughing] For as long as they’ll have me…or until I step on a rake. Whichever comes first.