Annapolis “99” Exhibit Expands with Major Gift: An inside look at how the Historic Annapolis’ museum exhibit is shaping up
Nov 29, 2016 09:00AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
The Brice House, an 18th-century Georgian mansion completed in 1774, has recently come under the stewardship of Historic Annapolis, which received a $1 million state grant for infrastructure improvements. Photo by Jesus Sanchez Photography
Prompts two-year delay for Historic Annapolis’ ambitious endeavorBy Lisa Hillman
Imagine you were given a stunning, three-story brick house in a popular seafront town. You’re told this residence is one of America’s top five Colonial homes. Feel the responsibility?
Such is the charge that Historic Annapolis (HA) faced two years ago when it assumed stewardship for Brice House, the 18th-century Georgian mansion designed and constructed by Annapolitan James Brice over a seven-year period, completed in 1774. When the state of Maryland purchased the property for $2.5 million from the International Masonry Institute in 2014, HA welcomed the challenge to provide the home’s care and upkeep.
Brice House is essential to HA. Not only does it house HA’s headquarters, but it also is a cornerstone of HA’s much touted, upcoming major exhibition, “A History of Annapolis in 99 Objects.” The exhibit will portray four centuries of local history and lore through the objects that best tell the stories of the times. At least five other sites, including HA’s museum and store at 99 Main Street, from which the exhibit takes its name, will house the exhibit.
Originally set to open this fall, the exhibit has been pushed back to 2018. Why? “Due to a generous gift from the state of Maryland,” pronounces HA President Robert Clark.
Thanks a MillionLike any non-profit organization, HA depends upon public and private donations to fulfill its mission: to “preserve and protect the historic places, objects, and stories of Maryland’s capital city, and provide engaging experiences that connect people to the area’s diverse heritage.” Just as it did two years ago, the state of Maryland has stepped in again for Brice House, this time approving a $1 million grant for serious infrastructure improvements.
“Without this grant the Brice House restoration would have been a stabilization project to prevent further damage,” says Lisa Robbins, HA Vice President for Public Programs, “but now we are able to study and document the house to decide what needs to be done most.”
According to Robbins, what’s most pressing is the “less glamorous side of restoration,” like new systems for heating and cooling, monitoring temperature and humidity, as well as security. It also includes exterior stabilization for the roof, woodwork, masonry flashings, gutter, and drainage, all overseen by a high-level team of preservationists from both Colonial Williamsburg and HA.
Making the project even more extraordinary is the rare existence of an “Account Book” written in James Brice’s own hand. Included as one of the 99 objects, the ledger dates from 1767 to1801 and covers the period in which the house was built. Not only does it meticulously record every expenditure for every detail, but it also reveals an impressive array of local craftsmen that include indentured slaves, plasterers, and carpenters.
Once completed, Brice House is expected to compare with the newly restored Old Senate Chamber in the State House. Slated to display key portions of the “99 Objects” on its first and second floors, Brice House will guarantee the visitor an impressive backdrop to the town’s remarkable history.
Notes Robbin, “As a preservationist organization, we absolutely have a responsibility to restore Brice House to its full dignity.”
Recalling Carvel HallNext door to Brice House is another landmark that will house the exhibit. What may surprise many visitors is not what’s in the 18th century Paca House, but what’s no longer there. For many Annapolitans, the notion that a 200-room hotel once dominated this National Historic Landmark is quite surprising. At a recent HA lecture on the topic by HA Senior Historian Glenn Campbell, one 30-year old resident asked incredulously, “You mean there was a hotel there—that opened onto King George Street?”
In its day Carvel Hall was the town’s finest hotel. As Campbell summarizes, it was “integral to Annapolis’ and the Naval Academy’s social life.”
In 1901, national tennis champion William Larned came to town to help his friend, architect Ernest Flagg, expand the Naval Academy. He bought the Paca House property and converted it into a hotel, adding the large addition where the restored gardens now flourish.
For the first half of the 20th century, Carvel Hall reigned over Annapolis as a social and political hub. Perhaps no one personifies the grand hotel more than Marcellus Hall. Marcellus began as a bellboy in 1913 and grew into the hotel’s major domo, greeting locals and visiting dignitaries alike. Until it closed its doors in 1965, Carvel Hall was a welcome respite for Navy officers, midshipmen, and their “drags,” the girls who journeyed from nearby cities for weekend dances.
Memorabilia from the high days of Carvel Hall will grace Paca House rooms, including the famous Tap Room sign and its wall-sized murals (see sidebar). But there’s another piece of Carvel Hall history that’s quickly fading…
Casting Call: Oral History ProjectThe exhibit’s delay gives HA time to add a new dimension: The oral history project. Designed to memorialize life in Carvel Hall, this new project records the stories of those who knew the hotel best. Here are just a few.
“A constant stream of people coming in and out.”That’s how 78-year-old John Calhoun of Ivy Neck in southern Anne Arundel County remembers afternoons at Carvel Hall, beginning as a first-grader at Annapolis Elementary School. His mom, a young widow, had moved to Annapolis to raise John with the help of her older brother, John Linton Rigg. Rigg had relocated his yacht brokerage business from New York City to Carvel Hall to take advantage of ties with yachtsman and boat builder John Trumpy and area boatyards.
Since his mom worked until 5 p.m., John walked to his uncle’s office after school every day. His uncle frequently was away on business so “he would turn me over to Marcellus. He would fix me a meal, mostly meat and potatoes, and if I got tired he’d take me cross the hall to a small bedroom where I took a nap.” John remembers “the beautiful, L-shaped wooden bar” in the Tap Room to the left as he entered from King George Street. In the 1940s the young boy could “walk all over town. I played in the Naval Academy and climbed over the canon on State House Hill.” But Carvel Hall was his safe place. “My nickname was Chips. Marcellus called me Mr. Chips. He was an incredibly gracious, happy man.”
“A fun place to have a party”Harriet Heise Nelson’s February 1969 wedding was planned for the Naval Academy chapel with a reception in the Officer’s Club, until the Vietnam War intervened. When her fiancé, LT JG Charles Allen Knochel got orders for the Mediterranean, she hastily moved the wedding reception to Carvel Hall. Harriet knew the place well. Living just doors away from the hotel, she grew up with “plebes in our house all the time.” In fifth grade she raced home from school on Fridays to “put my hair up in rag curlers” and prep for cotillion, the biweekly dances. “You just hoped at the end of the evening one of the boys would invite you for a 10-cent-Coke.”
It was no wonder she fell in love with an Academy graduate. She remembers her snowy December reception at Carvel Hall as a bittersweet memory. Two years later her husband was killed in Vietnam.
An Annapolis resident today, Harriet recalls Carvel Hall was the place for a party with its famous maitre’d ever present. “Marcellus would stand at the front door greeting guests, always beaming.”
“You went to Marcellus.”That’s how 81-year-old Alma H. Cropper, events coordinator for the Wiley H. Bates Legacy Center in Annapolis, sums up how she and friends found part-time jobs in high school. A vo-tech student, she learned “the proper order of setting up a table,” a skill she aptly applied to her job as busgirl, then waitress and hostess at Carvel Hall.
Memories light her face: the “best imperial crab,” bar mitzvah luncheons with the “largest strawberries anywhere,” and “plated lunches” for hundreds of schoolchildren from New York and Pennsylvania touring Annapolis in the spring. Her favorite memories are the people she met. “I waited on a man who ran a big company in New York. He asked me to watch out for his son, a plebe, for his four years.” Apparently she did, and very well. Years later, vacationing in Canada, Alma reconnected with the father who invited her to visit his home, along with a busload of her friends.
During June week, says Alma, “we’d be flourishing with people. Carvel Hall was just a great place to be.”
Carvel Hall aficionados may remember the wall-sized murals by Jack Manley Rose that adorned the Tap Room walls. HA plans to restore one large-scale mural depicting the Paca House in the 18th century. According to HA, while the image lacks historical accuracy, it still provides a fascinating insight into the Colonial Revival period. The other 14 murals have been “unfurled” and professionally photographed in high-definition. Photos courtesy of Historic Annapolis