Some History On The State House

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You would think that if the Maryland State House was haunted, it would be by bills killed in committee, or by the woes of politicians and partisans whose causes weren't addressed. But stories surrounding the State House ghosts are as unique as the building itself.

If those walls could talk, they might say...

Old as I am, I am Annapolis' third state house and Maryland's fourth. The first state house in St Mary's City, Maryland's first capital, became a church after the capital was moved to Annapolis in 1695. Annapolis's first state house was struck by lightning and burned down in 1704. The second state house's dilapidated and outdated condition led Thomas Jefferson to quip in 1766 that “judging from its form and appearance, [it] was built in the year one.” How embarrassing.

Intent on building a state house worthy of Maryland's emerging importance, architect Joseph Horatio Anderson designed my imposing Georgian facade on the highest point in town. The state’s legislature began meeting here in 1772, but construction was halted during the Revolutionary War. My old senate chamber, old House of Delegates chamber, rotunda and accompanying rooms were completed in 1779, making me the oldest state house in the United States in continuous use.

The U.S. Congress met here from November 1783 to August 1784, so I am the first peacetime capital of the United States. General George Washington resigned his commission as commander in chief of the Continental Army here in my old Senate chamber on December 23, 1783. His speech was so eloquent and moving that some consider it one of the most important speeches ever given in America, and I still house General Washington's personal copy.

The Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Revolutionary War and recognized the United States as a sovereign nation, was ratified here just a few weeks later. Perhaps this is why people see a specter of a Revolutionary War soldier, complete with uniform and a queue in his hair, on foggy nights.

With such monumental events going on in Annapolis, it was decided to give me a more elegant cupola. Besides, my roof leaked. Another architect, Joseph Clark, designed a soaring wooden dome rising over 200 feet and capped with one of Benjamin Franklin's lightning rods, topped with the ultimate symbol of 18th century stability - an acorn. The dome, which is actually two wooden cups nested together, remains the largest wooden dome in North America. Anticipated construction costs of this marvel had skyrocketed, however, because so many manufactured goods, including the nails for the dome, were still imported from England and tariffs were high.

Faced with the dilemma of postponing construction indefinitely until an American supplier surfaced, or paying exorbitant costs only to enrich our former enemy, Clark and the builders grasped the proverbial third horn of the dilemma and devised a system to hold the dome together with wooden joints, wood pegs and iron bands, and not a single nail. A masterpiece of engineering over 200 years old, the cupola has survived many hurricanes, nor'easters, a couple earthquakes, and even a derecho without significant repair. How's that for American innovation?

But not everything tied to me has survived so well. In 1793, a skilled plasterer named Thomas Dance was working on my dome and fell off the scaffolding 87 feet to the marble floor to his death. To make matters worse, his employer reputedly refused to compensate or return his tools to his widow and children, who were later deported to England. Rumor has it that Dance still bears a grudge. He's blamed for sudden drafts of icy cold air, echoing footsteps in the hallways, tipping pitchers of water, mysteriously opening doors, and supposedly can be seen smoking a pipe in the dome galleries or up on the cupola.

Believer or not, the state house is certainly worth a visit. It's open every day, even Halloween, except Thanksgiving and Christmas, and tours can be self-guided or arranged, though not during the witching hour. Take a peek for yourself.

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