A Cup of Rum and Other Reasons One of Annapolis' Greatest Historic Houses Is Worth Celebrating
On March 10, 1767, Annapolis, Maryland, native James Brice—just 20 years of age at the time—opened a leather-bound book and made a careful annotation recording the purchase of 16,600 shingles. For seven of the 34 years contained in his ledger, Brice meticulously documented the construction of his elegant house on the corner of Prince George and East streets.
Included within the yellowed pages is Brice’s curling script recording names of and payments to the tradesmen who constructed his house: who molded clay into bricks for the walls, who mixed the plaster to coat the interior, and who installed the bell cranks and trim. Brice’s ledger lists the names of at least nine bricklayers, a high number that makes sense, given that there were 326,000 bricks in his five-bay home when it was completed in 1774 (and yes, he counted the bricks in his ledger).
We also know that on April 14, 1767, Brice was excited about his new residence and, justifiably, he decided to celebrate: “Rum at laying corner stone,” he noted, along with the amount and cost. (He did the same on August 4th “at burning bricks.”) What was a practical way to keep track of his expenses and accounts proved to be an invaluable and exceptional resource to those at Historic Annapolis, who have managed the James Brice House since 2014 and are currently restoring it to its appearance in 1774.
In 1971, a volunteer archivist discovered the ledger in a local Masonic Lodge. By that time, it had survived two centuries and two fires, and no one had been missing it. Fortunately, several academics and historians changed that perception, including preservationist Orlando Ridout IV, who studied the house for nearly 40 years. They understood the rarity of having a complete account of 18th-century construction and design practices in Annapolis. (The ledger is now in the collection of the Maryland State Archives, which recently digitized the text.)
In early 2018, I and other colleagues at the National Trust (Rob Nieweg, Priya Chhaya, and Kirsten Hower) accompanied Robert Clark, Ariane Hofstedt, and Lisa Robbins of Historic Annapolis, along with Bill Neudorfer of Zaras and Neudorfer, the project architect, and Marcia Miller with the Maryland Historical Trust on a tour of the house led by Willie Graham, consulting architectural historian. It was like watching a time capsule unfold as soon as we donned our hardhats and made our way to the cellar: an odd feeling of deja-vu as I watched the two craftsmen (Kevin Hall and Robert Nietto) working on the bulkhead in the cellar, knowing that the same bricks were handled by bricklayers (maybe Francis O'Neal or Benjamin Young?) more than 240 years in the past.
James Brice died in 1801 and left his family severely in debt. They couldn’t afford to make changes to the house, so nothing significant occurred until the late 1800s, when it passed out of the family’s hands. It was used by a small college for almost three decades before being sold to a family who embarked on a full-scale restoration in the 1950s. It was last used as the headquarters for the International Masonry Institute before the state of Maryland purchased the house and turned it over to Historic Annapolis in 2014 to manage and restore.
The Brice House was used in different ways by its various owners, and we see evidence of almost every generation who lived or worked there: reddish-orange marks on an original door used by the Brice family's enslaved servants as a record-keeping system; a 19th-century floor laid over one from the 18th century; an oversized opening cut through a masonry wall when the cellar was used by the Carvel Hall Hotel next door in the early 20th century; and, of course, Brice's celebratory cornerstone, tucked away in the southwest corner, with the words “The Beginning” carved into the stone.
Though this kind of auxiliary space isn’t usually considered as significant as a first-floor parlor or second-floor bedchamber, cellars offer a seemingly endless amount of information about a building’s construction and the people who lived and worked there.
It’s these pieces, covered up by centuries of paint and dirt, that make the case for preserving a site like this. It may not be the grand home of an American president like George Washington's Mount Vernon or James Madison's Montpelier; James Brice, who was a lawyer, militia officer, and acting governor of Maryland (albeit for just two months), is not a nationally recognized name. But interpreted together, the house and the ledger reveal a timeless, tangible chronology of the craftsmen, laborers, building materials and design, as well as Brice's thought processes regarding his house's design. Historic Annapolis recognizes this, and when it opens the house to the public, it plans on allowing access to the cellar and attic on special tours.
After viewing the cornerstone, we walk into a small room that holds a collection of doors, trim, and flooring that was removed and saved in the 20th century. We can see that one of the floor boards was both blind-nailed and doweled, indicating that these floors were assembled in the most expensive way available. The wood itself—long leaf yellow pine distinguished by its dense and tight grain—is high quality, even for 18th-century Annapolis, a city that was building in the latest styles with the latest construction methods earlier than its neighbors.
Though at this point we've seen only the cellar, it’s clear to me that the craftsmen who built the James Brice House—members of the laboring class and the enslaved—were skilled in their trades.
While we could explore the nooks and crannies in the cellar for hours, we still have three more floors to see. Up a narrow, winding stair built in the 20th century, past the only surviving in-situ bell crank from the 1770s, and into the main hall we go. It’s here that we see the exceptional craftsmanship of the house in context.
“It does become, for a brief moment, one of the greatest houses in Annapolis,” Graham notes.
It’s easy to see why. The rococo-inspired mantelpieces in the drawing room and dining room, with their exaggerated curves, speak to Brice’s knowledge of the latest tastes. The dining room’s plaster panels of varying sizes covering the walls were meant to evoke the wood-paneled dining rooms of 17th-century English country houses. From the ground, we can see the details in the cornice in the dining room—the curving vines of the cast plaster, intersected with lines twisting around it like rope. These little details in the molding were hidden by years of paint before the project’s paint analyst, Susan Buck, Ph.D., removed the excess layers.
In the entryway, Graham points to a section on the wall next to the main door, where faint traces of yellow distemper (a thin water-based paint mixed with hide glue and pigment) peek through. The house’s exterior as it looks now is what we think of when we imagine a typical early American brick house, but originally those variant-hued bricks were yellow-washed. Most houses at the time were red-washed, a practice that began in the 17th century to obscure deformities in the brickwork and joints to give the exterior a more uniform appearance. The jack arches above the windows, made up of bright red bricks that stand out against the more muted-colored bricks of the walls, were originally red-washed and would have provided an even greater contrast than what we see today.
“Every known example [of yellow-washing] is in Maryland,” says Graham. It’s unclear at most of these properties how early the washes date to, but we know that the main block of the Brice House was yellow-washed before the hyphens (small additions connecting the main block and wings) were constructed—they trapped the wash and protected it from the elements for over two centuries.
Washes come off easily due to time and age, and eventually they fell out of style altogether. Though the James Brice House has been without its yellow and red washes for decades, Historic Annapolis plans to take it back to its original appearance. The difference will no doubt be dramatic, but it will be in keeping with James Brice’s vision for his house.
“It does become, for a brief moment, one of the greatest houses in Annapolis.”Willie Graham
Which is, really, the whole idea propelling the restoration: to present a piece of Annapolis’ history in an authentic way. I didn’t peek at my copy of Brice’s ledger until after the tour, but it was obvious to me as we moved through the rooms that the house is a work of art, made more special by the fact that it had been in private hands for so long and had never been a museum. The house has the potential to tell its story beyond those who originally constructed it to include the talented people currently restoring the masonry, wood, plaster, and other finishes. To that end, Historic Annapolis will refrain from furnishing the house. The building itself will be the gem that brings the public through its doors.
After walking through the chambers on the second floor, we make our way to the attic. At one point it was used as quarters for enslaved servants. When the crew for Lewis Contractors pulled up newer floorboards to uncover the historic joists, they discovered a pair of iron scissors that likely belonged to one of the enslaved servants living there. Now rusted with age, it originally would have shined with a bright, mirror-like polish. It’s a delicate looking item. My first thought was that it was for sewing or embroidery, but Graham cautions me. While they don’t have a definitive guess for its use, early research suggests it isn’t typical of historic sewing scissors, leaving its purpose to be discovered.
The multi-million-dollar restoration of the house won't be completed for several more years. The comprehensive project has been supported by state funds and private donors, but Historic Annapolis is seeking additional support and other ways to raise the needed funds. When opened, tours will occur in the main block, and the house will be a place for ongoing preservation research and educational programming.
If you’re interested in learning more about the restoration and how you can help, block out your calendars for this coming Saturday, April 21, 2018. Historic Annapolis is throwing a block party with community partners, including the National Trust, the Maryland Historical Trust, and Maryland Public Television. The roads around the James Brice House will close to vehicle traffic to make room for booths, music, and demonstrations from craftsmen. Bob the Builder will also make an appearance. His own slogan, "Can we build it? Yes, we can!" is inspiring Historic Annapolis to ask, "Can it be restored? Yes, it can!"