Preserving cobblestone character of state capital


The historic district in Annapolis is one of the few neighborhoods in Maryland that comes with an instruction manual on tending the historic homes in the 346-year-old state capital.

The rules are designed to preserve the cobblestone character of a nationally famous neighborhood. For many in the historic district, tending to the creaky old homes, some hundreds of years old, is a labor of love.

"Why would I want to live in a drafty old house with an ancient electrical system, ancient plumbing and an outside that always needs to be repainted?" asks Hans Froelicher, who lives in an 1840s home on Market Street. "Because there's something about the ambience of these old houses that makes me feel comfortable, that makes me feel at home."

The historic district, which takes up about one square mile, is bordered by St. John's College to the north and the waterfront to the south.

Aside from being a national attraction, historic Annapolis also happens to be at the heart of the city's downtown district, at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay and at the center of state government.

Residents admit that the preservation guidelines are strict, but many say they're worthwhile.

"It keeps its scale and its antiquity," says Mr. Froelicher, 45, who has lived in the district for the past 20 years. "But it's not a museum, thank goodness. I wouldn't want to live in a museum."

The architecture is varied, including Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Gothic revival, Victorian and modern. The buildings are among the area's biggest tourist draws, and visitors can be seen wandering around the neighborhood on weekends even in the coldest winter months.

There are attached and non-attached townhouses and two- and three-story houses, which owners spend much of their time renovating. Rental properties and apartments are scarce.

The average property sold for more than $242,000 in 1994, and real estate agents say there are plenty of historic homes carrying price tags in the millions of dollars.

Commercial district

The commercial district runs through the historic neighborhood. The last downtown grocery store, Rookie's Meat Market, closed last year after 45 years in business. Many residents must drive 15 minutes to buy a quart of milk.

Because the historic district is at the center of downtown, much of the area is nonresidential. Large pieces of the neighborhood are taken up with institutional buildings, including several churches and many more county and state legislative offices.

The State House sits in the geographical center of the district, and when the legislative session begins, downtown restaurants and bars fill with scores of lawmakers, lobbyists and legislative aides.

When the lawmakers move out -- which they started doing last week -- they soon are replaced by boaters and summer vacationers, who keep second homes in the historic district and the Annapolis area.

And then there is the constant influx of tourists, vacationers and weekend visitors to the town's bed and breakfasts.

As for the residents, they, too, are diverse. While most are well-heeled professionals, they range widely in age, occupation and lifestyle.

Case in point: Mr. Froelicher's street.

Mr. Froelicher, a lawyer in the Maryland attorney general's office, shares a home with his wife and two young children. His neighbors include a builder, a musician, two tutors at St. John's College, an eye doctor, a staffer at the National Security Agency and several retirees.

And then there are the old-timers such as Margery Dowsett, whose family has passed down the same home since 1771. Ms. Dowsett and her "lunch bunch" -- a group of friends she has known since childhood -- all share memories of Annapolis and a )) love for the city.

But Ms. Dowsett also says she and her friends worry that the town is losing its sense of history, noting that "the problem is we're dying off and we don't want to see the town die off with us."

Many younger dwellers say they are not interested in giving the town a quicker tempo. Some of these residents crave the quiet setting but still work in Washington and Baltimore.

And others are willing to give up the fast-paced city life altogether.

The neighborhood is home to people such as Kathryn Dahl, a lawyer who quit life in Washington to move to Annapolis, where she can walk to her office and friends' houses.

"There's such a real sense of community here. I lived in the suburbs and I find them so isolating," says Ms. Dahl, who lives in an 1860 home on Green Street.

Defending restrictions

Most residents are staunch defenders of tougher zoning restrictions, noting that the local property values would plummet if the clapboard homes and Colonial rowhouses were crowded out or replaced by anything more modern.

After all, the old clapboard houses and red-brick townhouses are the reason some families stay in the same home for generations and scores more newcomers move here each year.

"If you move to the historic district, you do it because the area has certain safeguards," says Louise Hammond, the Democratic alderman who represents the historic district on the city council. "It's rather [reassuring] to know there are certain things your next-door neighbor cannot do."

Residents who want to change landscaping, decks, doors, porches, exterior lights and other elements of their homes first must get approval from the Historic District Commission, a local review board. The commission prints hundreds of free instruction booklets for new residents on those rules for the neighborhood.

The historic district guidelines can be burdensome, but many residents say the community would lose its Colonial ambience without them.

"You can hardly put a new doorknob on without getting it approved first," says Ms. Dahl, who moved to Annapolis 17 years ago. "But most people shrug their shoulders and grin and bear it, because the benefits are enormous."

The neighborhood isn't just a home. In many cases, it's a personal, professional and political cause.

The district's dwellers are often the most vocal participants at city council meetings, urging local aldermen to curb the growth of the bar and restaurant industry that bisects the district down Main Street.

Most historic district dwellers are well versed in the local arguments over 2 a.m. liquor licenses, downtown parking spaces and new business leases. So intense are these battles that when asked to describe life in the district, often residents forget the pretty historical trimmings and bring up the controversies.

For the people who live in the area year-round, the fluctuating population, combined with the tourist traffic, can be troublesome. Not just tourists, but new bars, restaurants and businesses that attract them are at the root of others' complaints.

The city was once dubbed "Camelot on the Bay" by National Geographic magazine. Now some residents sardonically label it "Best Party Town."

"The tourists aren't coming here anymore to look at the architecture," says Larry Vincent, who runs Laurance Clothing, a men's clothing store on Main Street. "They're coming here to get drunk and throw up. That change in the type of visitor makes the quality of life deteriorate."

Too protective?

Some city officials have said the historic district is too protective of its charms -- attractions which are not meant for local dwellers alone, but which are designed to keep the city thriving as a national historic landmark and a popular tourist destination. It's a perennial argument which continues to divide even the residents against each other.

"It's a constant political struggle," says Dr. Paul T. Elder, who has lived in the district for nearly 10 years with his wife and three children.

"My family and I have found a real sense of community living within the historic district," he says. "But we are frustrated with those people on the city council who just don't seem to get the concept that this neighborhood is under siege."

But even with those reservations, few residents talk of moving out.

"I've often thought, where else would I land?" Mr. Froelicher says. "I like the history. I like walking down the old streets. You just don't feel the way you would if you lived somewhere else."


Population: 3,938 (City ward that includes historic district, 1990 Census)

4 Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 40 minutes

Commuting time to Washington: 55 minutes

Public schools: Green Street Elementary, Bates Middle School, Annapolis High School

Shopping: Main Street, featuring clothing stores, gift shops, real estate agents, banks, bars and restaurants; Graul's Supermarket, a few minutes outside town on Taylor Avenue; two Giant supermarkets, one on Forest Drive, another at Bay Forest Shopping Center.

Nearest mall: Annapolis Mall, 3 miles west

Points of interest: Banneker-Douglas Museum, featuring African-American history exhibits; historic homes, such as the Charles Carroll House and the William Paca House and Garden; City Dock; Maryland State House; Naval Academy; St. John's College; B & A Trail Park; and Quiet Waters County Park.

Zip code: 21401

Average price of single-family home*: $242,899 (125 sales)

Average price for homes sold through the Anne Arundel Multiple Listing Service in 1994 in "downtown Annapolis."

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