Often referred to as “a museum without walls,” Annapolis is a history buff’s dream. It also proudly boasts more 18th-century brick buildings than any town of comparable size in the United States. With a pedigree like that, and with an eminently walkable historic area, it’s easy to take in the city’s architectural highlights in one day. These are my favorites.
#1 Main Chapel, United States Naval Academy
The plebes, midshipmen, and cadets who receive instruction at one of the United States’ top public schools have the privilege of doing it on a spectacular campus. Founded as the Naval School at Fort Severn in 1845, it became the United States Naval Academy in 1850 and has since expanded from a 10-acre campus to 338 acres, bordered on three sides by the Severn River and a few creeks. The peninsula campus easily ranks among the most beautiful college campuses in the country. I first saw the largest house of worship on the campus, the nondenominational Main Chapel, from nearly two miles away, while I was crossing the Naval Academy Bridge over the Severn. This National Historic Landmark, designated in 1961, was dedicated in 1908 after four years of construction to the designs of the brilliant architect Ernest Flagg. Just over 30 years later, the chapel was remodeled and expanded from a Greek cross form to a Latin cross, increasing its seating capacity from 1,600 to 2,500.
A key element of the Annapolis skyline, the chapel’s iconic copper dome rises above the balustrades lining the side rooflines as well as the nearby treetops. It rests on a drum with about two dozen arched windows, nearly 200’ above the main altar. A beautiful lantern rises above it, topped by a golden dome that reflects the massive dome beneath it and capped with what can easily pass as a golden replica of the Washington Monument.
Two huge columns flank the main entrance. I passed through the open doors, a pair of 22’ bronze-cast monoliths with “Father Science” and “Mother Patriotism” sculpted into their panels, dedicated in 1909. Right from the start, the chapel’s sheer size is almost overwhelming. Rows of pews and parallel upper-level balconies under the windows march up to the altar area, drawing me closer to the rich blues and yellows of the stained glass behind the altar. The pulpit, installed in 1943, bears ornately carved figures of the four gospel writers. Above, the dome’s oculus spans a diameter of 20’. The ribs of the dome curve down to a series of 24 busts on plinths, representing the races of mankind, including a Native American chief, a Greek warrior, and the Statue of Liberty.
The stained-glass windows bear a highly nautical theme, and I was soon hunting for watery images and references, both historical and Biblical. For the former, I found one as a memorial to David Farragut, flag officer of the U.S. Navy during the Civil War and the Navy’s first rear admiral, vice admiral, and admiral, with a rainbow arcing into the two side windows with tall-sail ships. Another, donated by the Class of 1927, features a Navy officer in dress whites beside an American flag, “in reverent tribute to all the sons of their alma mater who in war and in peace have realized her ideals of honor, courage, loyalty and duty, in the service of God and country.” You’ll spy anchors, seashells, and Neptune’s trident as well. On the Biblical side, in addition to that main window behind the altar, of Jesus walking on water, look for the windows of Noah’s Ark; Jesus recruiting prospective Apostles in their boat with their fishing nets: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men”; Jesus calming the Apostles on a stormy sea; and a quote from the gospel according to St. Mark: “And He began to teach by the seaside: And there was gathered unto Him a great multitude so that He entered into a ship.”
I finished my visit by heading downstairs into the crypt to see one of the chapel’s greatest treasures. In this eerily silent space, I found, in the center of a circular deck surrounded by a series of columns, an extravagantly embellished sarcophagus—a 21-ton frenzy of black and white Italian marble, bronze fittings, and dolphins amid waves. The names of six ships are inscribed in the floor circling around the casket: Bonhomme Richard, Alliance, Serapis, Ariel, Alfred, Providence, and Ranger. It all seemed highly appropriate for the United States’ first naval commander to achieve renown, John Paul Jones, who, in a bizarre career path following the American Revolutionary War, found himself serving the Imperial Russian Navy under Empress Catherine II. Jones was only 45 when he died in Paris in 1792 and was buried there, in a cemetery that belonged to the French royal family. Four years later, the French revolutionary government sold the property, and the cemetery and Jones were forgotten. More than a century later, the U.S. ambassador to France identified Jones’ remains after a six-year search. In 1906, the remains were returned to Jones’ adopted country (he was born in Scotland) that he helped achieve independence and finally, in 1913, he received the grand final resting place he deserved.
#2 Maryland State House
A walk through the Maryland State House is a walk through history. I approached this National Historic Landmark (1960) via a broad plaza flanked by Federal buildings, including the governor’s house. Occupying a hilltop traffic circle from which radiate at least half a dozen streets, Maryland’s capitol is the oldest state capitol in the United States still in continuous use, begun in 1772 and completed in 1797 after a long delay stemming from that disruptive Revolutionary War. It’s also the only state capitol to have ever served as the national capitol, albeit very briefly (1783–84). The Georgian-style building is a vertical treat. A long flight of stairs leads up to the portico with six Corinthian columns supporting a pediment with dentils and a sculpted state seal. Above that, a long balustrade spans the entire peak of the roof, and above that rises the largest wooden dome in the United States, constructed without nails and resting on an octagonal drum with lozenge-shaped windows. Look to the very top to find the lantern capped by a lightning rod that was constructed and grounded according to Benjamin Franklin’s specifications.
I stepped through the open 2,100-lb bronze doors and inside the revered halls and chambers. I was impressed by the generous use of marble in the columns, wainscoting, door frames, grand staircase, even the clock faces, some of them speckled with veins of black and rusty red. The working Senate and House chambers, facing each other across the broad hallway, feature Ionic columns supporting the viewing gallery above, Tiffany skylights, and paintings of key Maryland figures, including its four signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Old Senate Chamber echoes with the sounds of some of the most important events in early American history. In 1781, this room witnessed Maryland’s ratification of the Articles of Confederation, the last of the 13 colonies to do so, thus establishing the required unanimous consent of all 13 to form a perpetual union. I stood beside a bronze statue of George Washington reading his statement as he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783 in this very room. (You can read the real document in a case in the rotunda; it’s considered the fourth most important document in American history after the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, in that Washington willingly resigned from the position that would have kept him in power after the Revolutionary War and that would have him become, in the belief of most Europeans, the first American king.) A statue of Molly Ridout stands in the gallery above, the only space where women were allowed to view the proceedings. Ridout authored one of the only written accounts of Washington’s resignation and the only description left by a private citizen. In 1784, the Confederation Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris here, officially ending the Revolutionary War. And in 1785, it was the site of the Annapolis Convention, a meeting that laid the groundwork for the 1787 Constitutional Convention to create a new frame of government for the new nation.
#3 William Paca House
Seemingly every resident of and visitor to Annapolis this day was attending the Navy–Air Force football game, so I was the only person on the tour of the William Paca House and Garden. Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and three-term Maryland governor, designed his mansion largely on his own, quite an impressive accomplishment. I approached the property via the stairway cut into the brick wall surrounding the house and climbed up to the terraces protected from sidewalk pedestrians by rows of hedges. The five-part symmetrical Georgian brick mansion features a two-story central block with a third-floor attic with dormer windows and two end pavilions, connected by two hyphens. Completed in 1765, it received National Historic Landmark status in 1971 following some unfortunate events, as my guide explained.
As he led me around the cozy, finely appointed rooms, some painted in bold colors and with exquisite crown molding, and the kitchen, with its brick floor, display of 18th-century utensils and gadgets, and a spread of dishes that would have been served then (including a marzipan hedgehog), he unfolded the house’s tale. Paca didn’t remain in his residence for very long, selling it in 1780. A subsequent resale landed the property in the lap of a hotel corporation that converted the house into lobby and conference rooms for the new hotel it built in the two-acre garden behind the house. Additions were made to the original house, and the 200-room Carvel Hall Hotel opened in 1901. The hotel ultimately failed, and a proposal to demolish the entire site and erect high-rises was floated in 1964. Preservationists acted quickly, and historic organizations gained ownership of the original house, the hotel, and the grounds by 1965. Ultimately, the hotel was razed, the garden was resurrected, the additions to the mansion were removed, and the house was returned to its original plan.
That’s where the tale, and my tour, ended, with an invitation to stroll around the walled garden. Native and heirloom plants flourish here, and a latticework bridge crosses over a fish-shaped pond to a two-story summerhouse. This picturesque retreat from the city’s bustle is ideal for weddings and private events, or just for contemplating what an upper-class household in colonial and revolutionary Annapolis might have been like.
#4 Bancroft Hall, United States Naval Academy
Do you remember what your college dorm looked like? Mine was an uninspired, and uninspiring, two-story brick box that had the personality of a discarded cigarette butt. The midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, however—all 4,000 of them—get to live in what is widely regarded as the largest contiguous set of academic dormitories in the United States. Named for former Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, this massive Beaux-Arts building (another Ernest Flagg beauty) was completed in 1906 and was enlarged in 1917, 1939, and 1961. It’s so large that it has its own ZIP code. It contains 1,700 rooms, nearly five miles of corridors, and 33 acres of floor space. It also houses everything its residents would need on a daily basis—barbershop; laundromat; bank; travel office; cafeteria and small restaurant; medical, dental, optometry, and orthopedics clinics; gym; and book, general, uniform, and cobbler shops. Renovations in 2003 added 1,600 miles of wiring for the building’s data communication network, and, just as importantly, air conditioning.
Outside, the five-story edifice is beguiling, with a mansard roof, dormer windows, banded pilasters, and lots of nautical details: ship prows and oars and cannons, tridents and ropes and anchors, waves and sea creatures. Tecumseh Court in front of the main entrance gives way to a semicircular drive, cut by a staircase, both leading to the front doors. Some of the dorm is open to the public, and even though I was flashing back to my own mind-numbingly dorm, I was so enchanted by everything outside that I climbed the stairs and headed inside, completely unprepared for the grandeur that greeted me.
From top to bottom, the rotunda is guaranteed to wow you: gorgeous ceiling, fine pilasters, marble floor, and a mural of the USS South Dakota during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in World War II painted into a lunette. I advanced toward the large staircase and climbed up to Memorial Hall. This tremendous room honors Naval Academy alumni who died in combat or military operations during their service to their country—more than 2,660 lost souls, identified by name and class year on the hall’s walls, starting in 1846. Another panel lists the names and class years of nearly one thousand alumni killed in action and the name of the war that claimed their lives. Tremendous chandeliers hang from the ceiling skylight that contains 489 panes of glass. Murals of key American ships and battles, like the Constitution and the Battle of Lake Erie, fill in the lunettes at the base of the curved ceiling. Surrounded by such beauty and thoughtfulness, it’s easy to understand the “don’t give up the ship” mentality and dedication instilled here, especially with Captain James Lawrence’s dying words, uttered on USS Chesapeake during the War of 1812, prominently displayed here.
#5 Mahan Hall, United States Naval Academy
Ernest Flagg struck gold again with the centerpiece of the original academic group around the Naval Academy’s main quadrangle, The Yard. On the opposite side of The Yard from Bancroft Hall and anchoring one end of Stribling Walk, Mahan Hall was constructed in 1902 as a classroom building. In addition, it housed a library, auditorium, and a huge reading room, articulated by the large arched windows on the second floor. This Beaux-Arts building of gray brick and terra cotta features two three-story hyphens connecting the two classroom wings with the grand central section. The main entrance rises above grade, approached via a double staircase, anchored by a verdigris-green 17” mortar captured at Manila during the Spanish American War. (And that’s not the only booty; inside, you’ll find the only British royal standard taken by capture, at Toronto during the War of 1812.) Pairs of round columns support the cornice, and two creamy-white allegorical figures, one male and one female, lounge above the central window. Above, the roofline is a glorious riot of architectural details—festoons and balustrades and brackets. From all this rises the hall’s signature clock tower. Each side includes a trio of long, slender arched windows with panes of gradating shades of blue and purple, a simple clock face with golden hands, and four brackets supporting the walkaround at the top of the tower, itself capped by a simple weather vane. The building was named for Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, Class of 1859—and there’s no doubt he would be proud of his namesake.
- Dahlgren Hall, United States Naval Academy (1903)
- Old Post Office (1901)
- Anne Arundel County Circuit Courthouse (1824)
- Reynolds Tavern (1747)
- Zimmerman-Wilson House (1891)
Leave a Comment
Have you been here? Have I inspired you to go? Let me know!