Architecture experts sought to probe nooks of buildings' history They would study attics, basements, fireplaces, moldings


Annapolis is looking for architectural experts to get lost in its buildings.

The search is part of one of the most comprehensive studies of historic buildings the city has ever attempted.

"This is not some 15-minute survey," said Donna Hole, the city's historic preservation planner and director of the study.

The city put the project, now in its third year, out to bid again this month as it seeks experts on the interior of buildings -- attics, basements, fireplaces and moldings.

The last contractor to work on the study, the Chevy Chase-based company Traceries, specialized in analyzing historical documents that told the buildings' history.

"Now we want to delve deeper, really get inside the buildings," Ms. Hole said.

The city's Planning and Zoning Department has studied 209 buildings and expects to review nearly all the 1,000 buildings in the historic district by the year 2000. Researchers use drawings, census records, old maps, photographs and interviews to create a file for each home.

Ms. Hole relishes exploring old buildings, calling them "unknown characters." The Baltimore native became immersed in historic preservation in 1979, when she researched barns and other farm buildings in the Chesapeake region at colonial Williamsburg, Va.

"It's exciting to try to capture the city at a period of time in history," said Ms. Hole, 50. "There's a certain amount of detective work to it, just in going into these places, soaking up the atmosphere of what has come before."

Although she has a desk at the city's Planning and Zoning Department, Ms. Hole frequently can be found in her hiking boots and blue jeans, exploring old buildings, equipped with clipboard, flashlight, penknife and tape measure.

These days, Ms. Hole is helping compile the findings of the architectural building study in books and a database that will allow users to cross-reference historic buildings by date, style and location.

In the not-so-distant future, Ms. Hole said, a few keystrokes at a city computer will produce something as obscure as a list of every 18th-century home whose cupola had a water view.

The data is meant to be more than a fun toy for history buffs. The Historic District Commission and other preservation groups can use it as a reference guide when deciding about individual sites.

The first piece of this study, "African-American Heritage in Annapolis," examines pre-Civil War sites. During that era, about 400 of the city's 4,000 residents were free blacks. The booklet, released in August, tells stories of several of the 40 free blacks who owned property in the early 1800s, when slaves toiled in nearby homes.

Next year the project, which costs up to $40,000 a year in city and state funds, will focus on 50 homes along Prince George and other downtown streets.

Ms. Hole is preparing for a second, even more sophisticated review of city buildings. This study will focus on the city's oldest, most distinguished and least documented homes.

"What we're trying to do with all of this is capture the city at a certain period in time," Ms. Hole said. "To get at the truth, that's the goal. To get at the truth."

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