Historic Annapolis

As James Brice House turns 250, ambitious plans are made for its renewal

Date: April 8, 2017, Capital Gazette, Wendi Winters

April 14 marks the 250th anniversary of the start of construction on what is now called the James Brice House at the juncture of 42 East and Prince George streets in Historic Annapolis. As the foundation walls were being laid, a chunky stone with the words "The Beginning" was cemented into a corner of the basement.

This week also marks the beginning of an ambitious multiyear plan to renew and restore what is considered one of Maryland's most important historic treasures. The effort has attracted a top-notch team of renowned conservation experts from around the United States and the world. The project, a collaboration between the state of Maryland and Historic Annapolis, is estimated to eventually cost from $5 million to $7 million.

"When it's done, James Brice would walk in and say, 'Yes. This is my house,'" said Willie Graham, the consulting architectural historian who has been the curator of architecture at Colonial Williamsburg for the past 36 years.

A native of Anne Arundel County and a Southern High School graduate, as a youngster, Graham lived in St. Margaret's, downtown Annapolis and Linthicum while his father taught at the Naval Academy.

"The surprising thing about this house," said Graham, who will be commuting from his home in Petersburg, Virginia, "is so very little has changed. It's the most intact house I've seen."

The Brice family owned the house for its first hundred years. At one point in the early 20th century, it was part of the Carvel Hotel compound. St. John's College owned the home from 1927 to 1953 and converted it into apartments for its faculty, while stripping away many details.

The next owners, Stanley and Helen Wohl, resided there for 26 years and did some major renovations, then sold it to the International Masonry Institute. The trade organization installed an HVAC system that wreaked havoc with the home's plaster walls.

The state of Maryland purchased the house in 2014. Arrangements were made for Historic Annapolis to use the site for its offices, and to maintain and manage the residence and property.

Members of the restoration team of experts include Graham; Bill Neudorfer, of Zaras & Neudorfer Architects in Washington, D.C.; Matt Webster, consulting building conservator, also involved in the architectural preservation of 603 buildings in Williamsburg; Susan Buck, conservator and paint analyst, currently working on a project in China's Forbidden City; and Sarah Thomas, consulting historian.

Before the first hammer is raised, the team will carefully scrutinize and analyze every inch of the old residence.

"We plan to surpass the recent restoration of the Maryland State House," Graham said. "We have more of the original 'fabric' of the house, other tools, extensive documentation — including Brice's detailed ledgers and, ironically, sketches I did in 1978, plus other extensive documentation and modern technology."

While the elaborate plasterwork and plaster paneling on the main floor garners quite a bit of attention, Graham is also fascinated by the wooden floors.

"These are doweled floors," he said. "They cost five times as much as the next expensive flooring of the era."

He pointed out the hand-sawed planks were knot-free Southern yellow pine. Some boards were as long as 24 feet.

"We'll not only restore the house to look like it was in the 18th century, but we'll stabilize it," he said.

Webster and Graham also want to put to rest the centuries-old rumor that the house has a ghostly past.

"I can prove it's not haunted," Graham said. He explained he found a talisman high in the rafters of the attic. It was placed there by the original building crew.

"It was designed to ward off evil spirits."

 

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