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Re-creating the House of Delegates Chamber in Maryland

The Old House of Delegates at the Maryland State House has been re-created back to its 1876 Victorian style.


Re-creation of the Old House of Delegates Chamber, Annapolis, MD


Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP: New York, NY; Hany Hassan, FAIA, partner-in-charge, director of Washington, DC, office; James W. Shepherd, AIA, LEED AP, project manager; Susan J. Pommerer, AIA, LEED AP, project architect


The Christman Company, Reston, VA

By Martha McDonald

Built in 1779, the Maryland State House in Annapolis, MD, originally consisted of two legislative spaces: the House of Delegates Chamber and the Senate Chamber. Now a National Historic Landmark, it is the oldest state capitol in continuous legislative use in the country. The Georgian red-brick historic building is crowned with an all-wood dome that is said to be built without nails. The Senate Chamber is famous as the location where George Washington resigned as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army on December 23, 1783.

Throughout the years, the rooms were updated and changed. In 1876, the Old House of Delegates Chamber was redesigned in elaborate Victorian décor under the direction of architect George Frederick. Later, a 1902-1905 addition moved the chambers’ functions to larger quarters and stripped the historic rooms of details. In 1948, the room was significantly reconstructed again and in 1968 it was subdivided into separate meeting spaces.

The client group, consisting of the Maryland Department of General Services, the Maryland State Archives and the Office of the Speaker of the House, decided that the room should be rebuilt back to its 1876 Victorian style, and they brought in Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners (BBB). “When we came to the job, the room was bare and the 1960s dividing partition had been removed,” says Jim Shepherd, AIA, LEED AP, project manager with BBB in the Washington, DC, office. “It was a very different room. It had painted yellow walls, an all-white ceiling with pseudo-Colonial chandeliers, fluorescent lighting and remnant carpeting. The only remaining historic elements were the plaster drop beams, wood baseboards, wood shutters and window surrounds and some paneled wood doors.”

BBB had completed an historic furnishings plan in 2007 that analyzed the room and its history. They were also provided from the Maryland State Archives collection two high-quality photos (ca. 1876 and ca. 1893) of the room that served as the basis for their work. “With so little historic fabric left, we had to use old black-and-white photos to re-create a highly colorful and decorative interior,” says Shepherd. “We did have a few things that helped us. The Senate Chamber across the hall also underwent a renovation in the 1870s, and there were some additional photos and postcards of that room, which were colorized. That gave us some flavor of the color palette of the time period.”

Also helpful were written descriptions of purchase orders found in the state archives, and the Baltimore City Hall council chamber, designed by George Frederick as well and still significantly intact. “The purchase orders were very descriptive,” says Shepherd, “and we were able to review and document the decorative millwork and plasterwork in the City Hall. It was a huge help.”

Some of the components in the 2,350-sq.ft. Old House of Delegates chamber were relatively easy to re-create, he adds, noting that the design team had access to 1870s catalogs of the original chandelier supplier, Cornelius & Sons, of Philadelphia. These documents guided Rambusch Lighting as they replicated three historic chandeliers, six sconces and two torchieres, as well as desk lamps.

Modern downlights and ambient lighting were also added. “All lighting is controlled by dimmers,” says Shepherd. “One of the lighting pre-sets approximates the warm light of a Victorian room. It complements the rich colors.” The lighting designer was Domingo Gonzalez Associates, New York City.

The biggest challenge, Shepherd points out, was developing the color palette.

 “With black-and-white photos, we could see the contrasts, but we didn’t have a direct representation of the color palette,” he says. “In addition to the black-and-white photos, the design team also had a 1998 historic paint report done by consultant Matthew J. Mosca, Baltimore, MD.

Using this report as a guide, and drawing on his experience and on other sources, Jeff Greene of EverGreene Architectural Arts, New York City, was the consultant in creating the color palette and guidelines for the plasterwork. The decorative painting was implemented by Conrad Schmitt Studios, New Berlin, WI, and the decorative plasterwork was done by Hayles & Howe, Baltimore, MD.

“We used the color palette that Jeff developed to guide us with the decorative painting on the walls and ceiling and for the carpeting and drapes,” says Shepherd. “We started with the ceiling, and then went to the drapes and then to the carpet, which was probably the most challenging,” he adds.

“For the carpet, we tried to zoom in on the historic photo and analyze it, and we also researched period pattern books. We were able to come up with a close facsimile of a six-frame wool carpet that would have been made at that time.” The final custom wool carpet was manufactured by Stark Carpet, Washington, DC, on 27-in. wide runs, on looms similar to those used in the 1870s.

BBB worked with a drapery consultant, John Buscemi of Belfry Historic Consultants, Lynn, MA, to design the drapery fabric for the chamber, which has large windows and a 20-ft. high ceiling. “We analyzed patterns on the computer to replicate patterns in gray tones and to develop colors to generate the drapery fabric design that complemented the color palette in the ceiling. We didn’t want to exactly duplicate the ceiling palette in the drapes and carpet. Elements of Victorian rooms didn’t typically all match,” Shepherd notes. The drapery was installed by Historic Textile Reproduction, Williamsburg, VA. The speaker’s rostrum was another interesting element. “We were re-creating something that was made of highly decorative millwork, but we had very little to go on,” Shepherd notes. “Visiting the council chamber at Baltimore city was very helpful as there was a similar rostrum there.”

The new rostrum, built by Zeeland Architectural Components, Zeeland, MI, is historically accurate and also universally accessible, with a pull-out ramp for the lower section. There is also a break-away panel that addresses accessibility at the rostrum desk.

The ash and burled walnut delegates desks in the chamber, also built by Zeeland, were re-created based on an original desk found in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society and on one owned by a local resident. “We found a resident who had a desk that was in better condition than the one in the archives,” says Shepherd. “In fact, the name of the delegate who had last used it was still on the inside of the desk. This was wonderful fun for us because could we could very thoroughly document the desk.” While the chamber originally had 90 desks, the new plan called for only 20. “The client wanted the flexibility to move the desks around. Using 20 desks gave some shape to the seating area and also allowed for the required flexibility.” Delegates’ chairs were re-created based on photos.

The client requested that the room accommodate three different uses. It was to be an exhibit room for people visiting the State House, a break-out room for meetings, and a space for presentations. The architects accommodated these contemporary requirements and were able to conceal them, for the most part.

A roll-down screen is nestled behind a wood window valence, and a control panel is integrated into the rostrum for lighting. There is also wiring to coordinate with projectors and some speakers in the ceiling. “The room is well wired for modern technology, but it is all well hidden,” Shepherd explains.

Fire protection was another issue. 

“A number of historic paintings were restored and brought back into the room,” he adds. “The curators at the Maryland State Archives were very concerned about these paintings. We were able to install a high-pressure mist system, with tanks in the basement below, that gave them a comfort level about protection of the space and the artwork, and that also wouldn’t be too visually intrusive.”

Some of these modern systems were integrated into the decorative ceiling. “We had to modify the ceiling slightly to accommodate the fire protection system nozzles, smoke detectors and new light fixtures,” says Shepherd. “In most cases, we were able to paint over them so they blended in with the decorative ceiling patterns.”

Another component that provided flexibility of use was the decorative ironwork. A historic railing was re-created by Robinson Iron with a new twist – it is movable. It can be placed within the room to allow visitors to enter or placed against the back wall when the room is used for gatherings. This was accomplished by having the railings fit into discreet sleeves in the floor. “We were able to capture the essence of those railings,” says Shepherd, “and still accommodate the need for flexibility.”

The hardware for the project came from Julius Blum, Inc., San Diego, CA, and Wilmette Hardware, Wilmette, IL. The structural engineer was Keast & Hood, Washington, DC, and the MEP engineer was Mueller Associates, Baltimore, MD.

The $2.6-million project was completed in 2012. “This was an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime project,” Shepherd notes. “Hopefully, the chamber will be here for another 100 years. The new room is a representation of an era that is past, and it is a wonderful contrast to the Senate chamber across the hall, which is being restored to represent the first century of the building’s use. It will be a contrast, and a great representation of two different centuries.”

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