The Significance of a Written Record: Interpreting the James Brice House
Date: Preservation Leadership Forum, April 17, 2018, Willie Graham
The Brice House and the accompanying record of James Brice’s accounts leave tantalizing clues about his bid to rise through the elite society of Annapolis, Maryland, late in the colonial era.
James Brice’s father, John Brice Jr., was a wealthy Annapolitan who, despite being condemned for his Loyalist leanings by some of his contemporaries, twice won the mayorship of his hometown, was appointed to Maryland’s Provincial Court, and served on the Governor's Council. The senior Brice planned for construction of a lavish new home late in his life. However, at the time of his death in 1766, he had only managed to acquire the land and amassed a pile of construction materials in preparation for the build. In his will, written three months before his death, John Brice Jr. left the project’s completion to his second-born son, James.
Thus, by the end of that year, 20-year-old James Brice embarked on a massive building campaign to erect one of Annapolis’ finest colonial dwellings. The expenses of that project plagued Brice until his death in 1801. Nonetheless, he was able to use his carefully planned house as staging to craft a leading role in local politics.
Rediscovering the Brice House
Whether it was James Brice’s idea or his father’s, the mansion emerged as the largest of Annapolis’ unusual five-part Palladian-like dwellings. Unlike the first of these, which was built by Stephen Bordley a few years earlier below the Maryland State House, the Brice House was grand in every way conceivable, from its size to the elaboration of its trim.
About 45 years ago, an archivist discovered Brice’s meticulous accounts of his expenditures in the fireproof vault of a Masonic lodge. Brice kept records of the tradesmen; the free, indentured, and enslaved workmen; and the building materials required for his massive undertaking, ultimately summarizing the total cost of the project broken down by labor and materials. His record provides one of the most explicit journals of what it took to erect a fine mansion in the colonies on the eve of the Revolution.
In 2014 the state of Maryland decided to make this National Historic Landmark accessible to the public. The state purchased the property and entered into a long-term arrangement with Historic Annapolis, Inc., to manage it. Historic Annapolis, immediately recognizing the need to more fully understand the building, engaged a team of professionals to study it and prepare specifications for its restoration.
The Changing Plan
Brice memorialized the start of construction on April 14, 1767, when he ordered the laying of a corner stone and paid 27 shillings 6 pence for rum to celebrate. Oddly, although construction continued throughout the year, it took another 11 months before he paid for the “drawing [of] the Plann” of his new home.
Imposing as it turned out to be, Brice planned the main block of his house as a large, conventional, Georgian box that owed its internal arrangement and the form of its exterior to local custom. Its steeply pitched roof and parochial plan made the early conception of the mansion simply a variation on a regional theme.
Late in the Brice House’s construction process, however, owing to a building spree by government officials, wealthy merchants, and professionals on a scale and degree of refinement unparalleled in the colony, a new style of architecture emerged in Annapolis. The style favored the progressive designs of Philadelphia and London, blending them with local customs to create a distinctive Maryland form.
The ambitious young Brice could not finish his house without acknowledging this new trend—a fact reflected both in his documentary record and the building fabric itself. For example, Brice records the carving of the mantels as one of the last activities in the construction sequence. He notes their exquisitely carved frets, consoles, and frieze decoration, all of which suggest the new elaboration and Rococo treatments echoed in his neighbors’ projects.
Understanding the Staircase
Brice carefully chronicled working on the mansion’s staircase, initially describing turned balusters making up what was clearly a very fine but conventional open-string staircase. Its cost was considerable, and the staircase would have fit well with the masculine character of the “hall,” as Brice called his entry.
Yet Brice’s staircase initially puzzled historians. The turned balusters that Brice had paid for in 1768 were nowhere to be found. Today wainscoting ascends the wall of the stair, and it is capped with half of a conventional Georgian handrail to serve as its chair-board. One would expect the chair-board profile to have been replicated in full for the handrail, but the actual railing is more delicate. The form of the new railing was a rarity in America at the time. Moreover, the historians noted nearly imperceptible patching of the treads where the stair builder fitted an earlier and different set of balusters. What, they wondered, could account for these discrepancies? Brice’s records held the key.
By the end of construction, the staircase he had initially planned—with its traditional handrail profile and heavy, turned balusters—would no longer do. It had become obsolete before Brice could finish his dwelling. In 1773 he ordered it ripped out and replaced with what would become one of the most delicate Rococo staircases in town. The new flight of steps incorporated unadorned square balusters intended to reference the iron balusters increasingly used on European stone staircases. More unusual, though, was its handrail, which embodied the curvilinear, asymmetrical sensuality of Rococo forms in its delicate profile. That shape mimicked the Gothic designs promoted in pattern books but rarely created in the colonies except in a handful of Maryland buildings. The replacement of the railing cost an extraordinary amount: nearly 40 pounds sterling.
The Brice heirs paid a heavy price for James' construction project, which certainly contributed to the severity of his debt upon his death. Yet his house served him well: its augustness placed him among the town's elite, and he could entertain his peers as grandly as anyone in town. The project worked, for like his father before him, he received political appointments in the years that followed: member of the Governor's Council; twice mayor of Annapolis; presidential elector; and, finally, acting governor for a brief two months. The extraordinary survival of both the labors of Brice's workmen and his accounting of their work gives historians rare insight into the evolving imagination of a young, ambitious builder at the end of the colonial era.
Willie Graham, the former curator of architecture at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, serves as the consulting architectural historian for the restoration of the James Brice House.
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