If one small acorn can birth a forest of might oaks, it’s only fitting that Annapolis’ giant acorn marked the birth of our nation.
That acorn, which sat atop the Maryland State House for two centuries, has been squirreled away at a conservation lab in Calvert County since 1996. But now it’s coming home.
On Friday, the 250-pound gilded acorn, made of cypress wood, covered in copper alloy sheets, and measuring around 4 feet tall, was returned to Annapolis. It will be put on display at 99 Main St. later this month as part of an expansive citywide tour of Annapolis history hosted by Historic Annapolis called “Annapolis: An American Story,” which will have a grand opening next spring. Acquiring the iconic nut-shaped artifact was a joint effort by Historic Annapolis, The State House Trust and the Department of General Services.
“HA has been planning this exhibit for so long and to finally see it all coming together — it always was the vision and the hope that the acorn would be part of that storytelling and a showpiece within the exhibit,” said Mary-Angela Hardwick, vice president of education and interpretation at Historic Annapolis.
Since its completion in 1788, the distinctive white dome, and golden acorn above the State House have been a defining characteristic of Annapolis’ skyline at the center of the city. For the last quarter century, the acorn has lived at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard where it was preserved and studied. A replica was installed in 1996 to continue anchoring a lightning rod that juts above the soaring dome.
When the original acorn arrived midday Friday at the future home of the Historic Annapolis Museum, it was tightly wrapped in plastic, and strapped inside a wooden moving box marked “Fragile.” Movers from Bonsai Fine Arts, a professional art handling firm, carefully maneuvered the acorn off the truck and through the doorway of the building with only inches to spare.
A section of the acorn has been cut away to reveal a complex display of wooden slats, some of which have rotted away or been charred by lightning strikes. The golden paint on the upper two-thirds and dark green on the lower third has faded to a pale white and deep brown, respectively, by thousands of hours of sunlight.
“It’s not in a pristine condition. It’s in sort of the condition as it was when it was removed,” said Elaine Rice Bachmann, state archivist and secretary of the State House Trust. “It’s a fascinating object just to see something that did sit atop the State House for over 200 years.”
In 1993, around the 208th anniversary of its construction, extensive damage and dry rot were discovered in the acorn by steeplejacks and later confirmed by state architectural historian Orlando Ridout V. Centuries of Maryland rain, snow and other harsh weather had taken their toll.
Ridout’s discovery wasn’t all bad. According to a Baltimore Sun article published at the time, Ridout was surprised to find how much of the acorn’s building material dated to the 18th century, including the metal covering and decorations and the exterior, which was marked with dozens of names, dates and initials from those who worked on it. In 1996, the administration of Gov. Parris Glendening announced that the acorn would be replaced with a new one made by Maryland craftspeople. It was removed later that year by helicopter.
After careful maneuvering Friday, the fragile relic finally came to rest in a special climate-controlled display case in the front room of 99 Main St. The acorn is on loan from the State of Maryland for 10 years. During its stay with Historic Annapolis, the technology inside the case is able to monitor and regulate temperature, humidity and other factors to keep it preserved.
“Our goal with this object, and any object, is the safest long-term preservation of this piece as possible,” said Robin Gower, Historic Annapolis’ curator of collections. “In a way, it’s kind of funny because sometimes objects, if you think of an acorn, it was exposed to all the heat and all the rain and humidity. When it becomes a museum object as opposed to an object that’s used every day, it gets better treatments than it ever had.”
Starting Nov. 28 and lasting through the winter, the acorn will be on public display. Then this spring, Historic Annapolis will hold a grand opening of the museum, the starting point of an extensive tour of 11 historic locations throughout Annapolis, including the Banneker-Douglass Museum, Maryland State House, Annapolis Maritime Museum & Park, Hammond-Harwood House, U.S. Naval Academy Museum and The Mitchell Gallery at St. John’s College plus five sites operated by Historic Annapolis.
Acorns were a somewhat common decorative architectural flair in the 18th century, so it was significant for one to be placed on the State House, Bachmann said.
The original was designed by Joseph Clark, a London-trained architect, as a symbol of wisdom and judgment. Clark was tapped to design a new roof and dome for the State House in 1785 after the initial roof, a cupola, was plagued by leaks and design problems. The dome and the acorn were completed in 1788.
“The dome was the highest and most visible point, one of the most architecturally sophisticated buildings in the entire colonies and it was recognized as such,” Bachmann said. “It must have been a beacon for people. ... It’s always been an icon of the city of Annapolis and ... it’s a really nice connection to the very early history of the building.”
Crafted from cypress, a durable, weather-resistant softwood harvested from the Eastern Shore, the acorn rested around 200 feet above the ground, a silent witness to many momentous events in early American history that took place in the oldest working capitol building in the United States.
“If you think of pieces that have witnessed history, it was on our State House dome overseeing Annapolis for so many years,” Gower said. “This acorn was here; it’s seen it all.”
The acorn served as the stabilizing base of a 28-foot lightning rod and flagstaff designed by Benjamin Franklin, which was the largest working rod at the time. The original lightning rod remains at the top of the dome to this day.
After the original acorn was removed, a new one clad in copper, gilded and painted to match original drawings by Charles Willson Peale from 1789, was installed at a cost of $84,000. About 10 years ago, the state completed an $800,000 restoration job on the State House dome, which included regilding the golden acorn. Facilities workers said the object was still in good condition, 15 years after it was installed.
While much of the history of the acorn is well documented, some questions still remain, namely who exactly crafted the object.
“So much of storytelling is to bring forth the story of the diverse community from its beginnings. It’s that sense of all those names that are tied to it. They were people living in this community with day-to-day lives just like us today,” Hardwick said. “They contributed to it. These real people living at that time made their contributions in the creation of this acorn.”