The Unsinkable St. Clair Wright: Matriarch of Historic Annapolis has a story all her own
Date: December 21, 2015, What's Up Annapolis, Cliff Rhys James
Residents and visitors to Annapolis (all four million of you a year), look around. Do you like what you see—the historical touchstones and the charming vibe of a colonial cityscape overflowing with a rich architectural heritage? Does a sense of relief or gratitude claim your attention and are you amazed if only for a moment at how this Old World appeal has been preserved amidst the hustle and bustle of 21st Century America? It wasn’t always this way you know. But for the indomitable will of one woman much, if not most, of this would have been lost decades ago to the wrecking ball and/or the ruin that follows in the shadow of neglect the way night follows day
The beginning is as good a place to start as any: In 1650 the town of Arundelton was founded. In 1694 it became the capital of the province of Maryland, at which point it changed its name to Annapolis, in honor of Queen Anne. A year later, the Royal Governor laid out the street plan, most of which still exists today. Many of the grand houses you now see preserved were built in the mid-1700s as part of the city’s first great phase of commercial development and residential expansion. And while the economy suffered during the American Revolution, the city’s core infrastructure was spared from the destruction of war as British forces never attacked the town. St. John’s College, which traces its roots to the King Williams Free School founded in 1696, was, after seven failed attempts, finally chartered in 1784. By the turn of the century the town harbor was inadequate for the needs of the ever larger Clipper Ships, which flourished in and around the port of Baltimore. Indeed, the world would come to know and history would come to celebrate these vessels as the famous Baltimore Clippers. After U.S. Naval successes in the Spanish American War of 1898, the Naval Academy, originally built in 1845, underwent its first major expansion.
But while the city owes its name to a famous Anne of royal lineage, it owes the splendid historical preservation and quaint colonial charm with which it glimmers to another Anne—a commoner if you will with uncommon determination. Take another look around—go ahead. Notice what you see: the largest concentration of Georgian homes in the nation, well-preserved early 18th century wood frame Shiplap buildings, wide brick sidewalks, the ubiquitous Old World flourishes. Now notice what you don’t see: a massive tangle of overhead utility lines; neon signs jutting above walkways; the rust, rot, and chipped paint of dismal hulks of once stately buildings abandoned to the forces of time and neglect. All that you see and all that you don’t—all of it represents the lengthened shadow of history made perceptible by this one woman. And because of her foresight, we’ve been gifted with a kind of double vision. It’s the kind that allows you to stand at say the top of Main Street near Church Circle where you can look out all at once across space, through time and into the past.
Born into a prominent Newport News, Virginia, family around 1913, she was a gracious and genteel daughter of the south; a woman of exquisite taste, but also one of steely resolve who blew into Annapolis like a righteous storm after WWII. And if she left us with double vision it’s because she had her own singular vision—that of a shining city on a hill with its historical beauty and heritage preserved intact. She was intelligent, soft spoken, invariably well-armed with facts, and persistent as a raging river because come hell or high water. Anne St. Clair Wright was on a mission fueled by the power of a lifelong commitment. Sharing and supporting her vision was equal to inheriting a trusted friend and ally. Resisting her vision was to create a formidable foe and worthy adversary.
You see, not too many decades ago Annapolis was just another post WWII heap of a town in the early stages of slow but sure terminal decline. At the same time and beneath the shiny banner of progress, mid-century forces of urban renewal were organized, armed, and on the march with places like Annapolis lined up in the cross hairs for a modern day makeover. Like tailfins on cars, it was in with the new and out with the old. There was only one problem; according to the wisdom of the prophets of the day, for the city to be saved, it first had be destroyed. Only then they claimed, in the razed aftermath beneath the wrecking ball’s arc of annihilation could the gleaming new Annapolis rise like a Phoenix from the ashes. At least that was the theory to which many at the time tenaciously clung. After all, if clothes, cars, dances, hairstyles, and appliances could shrug off the remnants of time and abandon the past in favor of modernity’s sleek shine, then surely the very hearts of our cities and towns must make way for chrome and glass towers with their obligatory parking garages and elevated exit ramps. But the prophets lording over Anne Arundel County had a problem. It was called Historic Annapolis Inc. and between 1952 and 1987 its prime mover was Anne St. Clair Wright who presided as President some of the time, but was chief spokesperson and driving force all of the time.
Reflections of Her Legacy
David Fogle, Professor Emeritus of the University of Maryland’s College of Architecture and Historical Preservation doesn’t particularly like his vegetables, but he eats them anyway. So does former Annapolis Mayor Ellen Moyer. The three of us are sitting at an outdoor lunch table with David and I hunkered down in umbrella shade while Ellen sits in the sun, which she prefers. She, like the woman we’re here to discuss, has strong opinions and knows well what she prefers. And despite their relatively high ranking status on the age scale, both of my lunch companions are articulate, actively engaged, and full of vigor. (I make a mental note to eat more vegetables.)
In response to my question, Moyer says, “Yes, I was the Mayor of Annapolis from 2001 to 2009.”
“And I was her special assistant,” Fogle adds with mock seriousness.
Which is not only true but ironic because prior to the Ellen Moyer administration, St. Clair Wright herself had tried to get David to relocate to Annapolis. Notice I dropped the “Anne” in front of St. Clair Wright. This is because long ago she did as well fearing that the first name “Anne” didn’t adequately capture who she really was. “She didn’t want to be just another Anne,” Fogle explains.
“She was very determined and not only knew where she wanted to go but how to get there,” Moyer says, “and she was the kind of charismatic person who not only commanded your attention, but your respect.” When I ask her how and where she first encountered the remarkable woman Moyer explains. “It was back in the ’60s when my former husband, Pip, was mayor and I was first lady that St. Clair Wright became active and Pip, to his credit, not only shared her vision, but drove the political actions to support it. He saw the economic potential of historical preservation as a way to help revitalize the city, which desperately needed help.”
“And you Professor Fogle? How did you first meet the Matriarch of Historic Annapolis?” I ask. “She called me out of the blue back in the ’80s,” he says chuckling, “after she had seen the traveling exhibition and book I was involved in entitled 350 Years of Art and Architecture in Maryland and blasted me for not selecting more Annapolis area buildings preserved, because of her organization’s involvement. It started out with some controversy but we eventually became friends and supporters with mutual interests.”
But I want juicier stuff. I want to know about some of the legendary tales surrounding her mythical status as mover and shaker. David obliges: “I’ve heard several,” he says. “The first involves her going to the President of the United States with a map of Annapolis in hand upon which she’d drawn a line down King George Street and said, ‘Now Mr. President, I would really appreciate it if you would tell the Secretary of the Navy that future expansion of the Academy will not cross this line.’” (True or not, Naval Academy expansion never crossed west of King George Street.) “And the second?” I ask.
“Well,” he begins slowly, “Legend has it there was a local banker who had purchased two historical homes adjacent to his bank with the intention of tearing them down for parking spaces and a drive through window. After several failed attempts to meet with the banker, St. Clair Wright finally cornered him at a social function to plead her case. When the banker insisted that it was a done deal and he had every intention of proceeding with demolition, she calmly pulled out a list of one hundred signatures and said, ‘Well sir, the minute you do that, these depositors will withdraw all their funds from your fine institution and take their business elsewhere.’” (True or not, the two homes stand today.)
Ellen Moyer and David Fogle each hold St. Clair Wright in such high esteem that one of their first actions together in 2001 was to initiate a St. Clair Wright speakers’ series followed by receptions at places like Reynolds Tavern. Additionally, Fogle was not only instrumental in having the University of Maryland award her an honorary Doctorate, but also helped start the annual Anne St. Clair Wright Scholarship in Historical Preservation at the university. Still, they’re both distressed by the fact that too many people in several generations simply don’t know or appreciate the lasting contributions of St. Clair Wright to the city of Annapolis. And having become aware of her legacy, I will add that, her memory passing from the collective consciousness is one more example of us living off of borrowed wisdom.