Historic Annapolis

Antique furniture on display in Annapolis survived changing tastes - and a bullet

Date: Capital Gazette, November 13, Wendi Winters

Multipurpose furniture wasn't a recent invention.

Cabinet maker and furniture craftsman John Shaw (1745 – 1829), who had a workshop and residence at 21 State Circle, Annapolis, created meticulously built designs which graced many a townhouse and manor in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

His handiwork is still on display in the Maryland State House and the collections of the Historic Annapolis Foundation and Hammond Harwood House.

This fall, Historic Annapolis received an early Christmas gift — a gleaming piece of furniture, a combined bureau, desk and bookcase. The Federal period furniture is actually two pieces, the upper bookcase and the lower portion, assembled as one. It bears the clean lines and restrained ornamentation of the "neat and plain" style, widely favored in this region in the late 1700s. Sumpter Priddy III, a well-regarded authority on 18th century American antiques, has verified the piece as Shaw's handiwork.

Dating to 1795 and in excellent condition, it has remained in the same family. The furniture was donated recently by Robert "Mac" McGill Mackall and his wife Suzanne. The original owner was Mackall's great-great-grandfather, Dr. William Pennell Palmer, a Quaker physician. He and his first wife Martha Gray purchased Woodlawn Manor, in the Sandy Spring area of Montgomery County in 1825.

Mackall was in the U.S. Navy. The piece made five moves with him and his wife, including a final move in 2003 to their current home in Port Tobacco. For each move, the piece was handled with utmost care. Now, the Mackalls are downsizing.

"The decision for part with this treasure did not come easily," MacKall said. "However, since my wife and I are planning to relocate to coastal North Carolina, I decided I could not subject my old friend to that humid, unpredictable climate and yet another move." Though he had donated portraits of the Palmers to Woodlawn Manor, because it is now a public space and the site of social events, like weddings, it was determined the safety of the piece could not be assured at its early home.

Instead, in a small room in the William Paca House, the furniture is being readied for display later this year or early next. Through Priddy, Mackall was put in contact with the Historic Annapolis Foundation and Pandora Hess, Curator of Collections for Historic Annapolis. He is grateful to Priddy, Hess and Historic Annapolis "for ensuring this treasured part of my family history has come full circle and that it will be cared for in perpetuity." He looks forward to visiting it in its new home.

Pulling on a pair of white knit gloves, Hess showed off the various features of the piece. She pointed out the dainty French feet upon which the solid piece rested. There are also barely visible tack marks on the inside of the glazed doors which suggested, to the experts, the doors were originally upholstered on the inside, probably with silken, pleated curtains.

Hess gently pulled out the two upper false bureau drawers and folded down the front piece, revealing a desk complete with a flat writing surface, eight small drawers, a long vertical one, and five arched openings that were used to hold bills and correspondence.

A drawer on the right, second from the top, bore subtle signs of a repair on its face. Pulled out for inspection, one can see a hole is gouged through the rear. Examining the side of Shaw's furniture, there is a distinct patch on the outer right side – it takes a few moments to find it.

In the early 1950s, according to Mac Mackall, his father Benjamin Duvall III, was seated at the desk cleaning a .22-caliber target rifle when it discharged. The bullet tore through a drawer and ricocheted out through the side.

Luckily, no one was hurt — and the damage to the furniture was slight.

 

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