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What's Up Magazine

The Annapolis Skyline

Dec 01, 2014 10:30AM ● By Cate Reynolds
Exploring the steeples, spires, cupolas, and domes that dominate Annapolis

By Ann Powell

What’s up, Annapolis? No, really—take a moment to look up from the streets of Annapolis and count the number of steeples, spires, cupolas, and domes on the Annapolis skyline.

Although our most prominent skyline features are diminutive by large city standards, the iconic State House and Naval Academy Chapel domes and the classic St. Mary’s and St. Anne’s steeples are old friends to Annapolitans. Look carefully and you will notice other lofty structures rising above our streets.

Next time you approach Annapolis via Rowe Boulevard, look skyward and notice four pinnacles within your immediate field of vision. Straight ahead are the Goldstein Treasury and the James Senate buildings with their cupolas, at the end of Lawyer’s Mall is the State House dome, and off to your right is St. Anne’s steeple.

St. Anne’s was once the social, religious, and geographic center of the town. Before the Revolutionary War, it was the only religious building available for the townspeople. The Episcopal Church and State House were positioned by design close together on the highest points in town. Topped by an iconic wooden compass rose, today’s St. Anne’s Church steeple is home to the Annapolis town clock.

The steeple’s interior is a mysterious place, built of aged wood much like the inside of a rustic old barn, primitive and musty with dust particles floating in dappled light. A series of shaky ladders go up and up to the apex, where looking down takes your breath away. Looking out at eye-level with the State House cupola, one can’t help but reflect on the mix of old and new buildings below. Seeing the town from above juxtaposes the City’s distinguished history with curiosity about the town’s modern-day inner workings.

As the St. Anne’s Junior Warden, Bill Wilbert has been in charge of buildings and grounds for more than fifteen years. Caring for the church facilities is a labor of love for this self-described “preacher’s kid” who loves history. “Actually there’s a lot of the infrastructure and underpinnings of the church that most parishioners never see or know about. It’s cool to see how it was all put together—and wonder how they built it more than 150 years ago.”

Around the corner, the first building that greets cars arriving via Rowe Boulevard is the state-owned Goldstein Treasury Building. A beautiful cupola tops this 1958 solid brick building. Home to the Maryland Comptroller and other state agencies, the structure is named for former Comptroller Louis Goldstein. A statue at the building’s entrance further memorializes the civil servant’s 50-plus years of service and “God bless y’all real good” optimism.

Another beautiful cupola tops McDowell Hall, the impressive brick building started in 1742 as Governor Thomas Bladen’s mansion and now the centerpiece of the St. John’s College campus. The bell inside marks a tradition each winter for every graduating senior who manages to complete a senior essay. The essay is a culminating experience in the student’s study of the Great Books at St. John’s, and its completion by midnight gains the writer access to a reception at the President’s home, followed by a climb up four flights of stairs to ring the bell at the top of McDowell Hall. In years past, each senior was allowed one peal of the bell for each essay page. More recently, the college adheres to a noise ordinance compromise with the neighbors, allowing one ring total per student between 12:30 and 1:30 a.m.

As the students know, there seems to be something in the human spirit that wants to reach skyward. Elsewhere in Annapolis, a beautiful cupola tops the James Senate Building, the Legislative Services Building, the Anne Arundel County Courthouse, and the Church Circle Post Office. Each is a work of art.

Most prominent on the Annapolis skyline are the domes topping the State House and Naval Academy Chapel. Dating to the ancient Middle East and advanced by the Romans for the Pantheon and other public buildings, domes became popular in Europe during the Renaissance.

Our State House dome is actually constructed as a dome within a dome. A brilliant glass and wood ceiling tops the interior dome. On the building’s second floor, a metal door leads from the luxurious interior finished dome to the attic-like space between the interior and exterior domes. A spiral staircase leads upward to a ladder accessing the pinnacle via a trap door, with a clear but gut-wrenching view through the oculus down to the marble floor below.

The State House cornerstone was laid in 1772 and the dome’s exterior was completed in 1788, becoming the City’s defining landmark for centuries. Thomas Jefferson wrote of an enjoyable three hours spent sitting on the dome’s balcony and gossiping about the houses below. To this day, the cypress and slate dome has no metal nails and is held together by wooden pegs reinforced by iron straps. Historic building regulations forbid the use of modern manufactured materials, and last year the dome was shrouded in canvas while it was painstakingly sanded and repainted.

Part historian, unofficial engineer, and politician, Sam Cook is the state employee responsible for the upkeep of the state’s 26 facilities in Annapolis. “You know, I love the State House best,” he says. Sam is animated as he talks about his prized responsibility. “The beams between the domes are unbelievably massive. Think about the structural engineer who designed the dome in the 1770s. In the 2011 earthquake, no damage was done to the dome. That told me how well constructed it is, keeping in mind all of Mother Nature’s elements.”

The 800-pound golden acorn atop the State House is also made of cypress. The lightning rod it supports is constructed and grounded to Benjamin Franklin’s specifications. Using a modern “Franklin rod” in the 1770s was in some ways a political statement symbolizing the independence and ingenuity of our young nation and the rejection of English rule. An astonishing engineering achievement for the time, the lightning rod is topped by a copper weather vane and protrudes 28 feet into the air above the cupola surmounting the dome. In 1996, the deteriorated antique acorn was replaced by a new gilded acorn constructed of 31 pieces of cypress made by craftspeople from around the state.

The other iconic dome in town is the Naval Academy Chapel dome completed in 1908. Architect Ernest Flagg was the designer of many Academy structures that replaced the original Fort Severn facilities. Without funds to gold leaf the entire dome, Flagg designed terra cotta decorations that eventually began to break off and fall to the ground. The terra cotta is now gone, replaced by copper and permitted to weather to its present beautiful green patina.

James Cheevers, senior curator at the Naval Academy Museum, is most knowledgeable about the dome’s features. “On the inside of the dome is an amazing pattern of light bulbs that makes folks wonder how and who changes the bulbs. Also around the inside are the sculpted heads of eight different individuals repeated three times. There is a Native American with an elaborate feather headdress and an oriental woman warrior. There is a head resembling an Egyptian pharaoh that represents Africa. There is a head like that of the Statue of Liberty, and four figures out of classical Greece and Rome.” He continues, “I finally found a 1908 article written by Flagg, and he simply described these heads as ‘the races of man.’ Well, I guess in 1908 ‘the races of man’ meant something different than it does today.”

Downtown, on Duke of Gloucester Street, are the First Presbyterian and the St. Mary’s Church steeples. The First Presbyterian congregation dates back to colonial services on Greenbury Point in the 1650s and formally organized the present church in 1846. The parishioners bought the old 1828 Hallam Theater and rebuilt it as their beautiful sanctuary in 1847, later adding the steeple tower in 1948.

Down the street, St. Mary’s Catholic Church was completed in 1859 with a brick steeple base containing four Meneely Bell Foundry bells. The soaring spire topped by a cross was added in 1876. Historian and Parish Archivist Dr. Robert Worden explains, “The interior of the spire is intricately built of wood with no public access to the steeple. It is entered through locked doors in the choir loft and then up a very steep set of stairs, through a trap door, and onto the bell level. Above that level is a series of ladders leading further up to access small portholes that are used to change the exterior lights.”

Dr. Worden continues, “I have always been impressed by the intricacy of the interior structure of the spire. It is constructed entirely with wood mortise and tenon joints, and stands firm after 137 years despite hurricanes, tropical storms, and earthquakes. St. Mary’s steeple, standing high on the skyline, has long been a navigating point for mariners. These days it is important that Annapolis keeps this steeple and others as the highest points on our horizon.”

The community members who know the inside stories of the City’s highest points cherish and care deeply for these landmarks. Our town is a very unique place because of our skyline. And anyone looking up from the streets below can’t help being impressed and inspired by the history, the architectural detail, the spiritual presence, and the stately beauty of our tallest treasures.