Columns remain horizontal; Foundation concerns stall plans to install them at courthouse; 'We just have questions'; Designed by Latrobe, pillars once graced Customs House


The case of the Ionic columns has taken an ironic turn, as plans to raise eight nearly 200-year-old marble pillars in Annapolis have stalled because of concerns about a concrete foundation laid just two years ago.

Those involved say it will be at least two weeks before the 16-foot scroll-top columns -- horizontal for nearly 30 years -- rise next to the Robert F. Sweeney District Courthouse on Rowe Boulevard.

They are lying on the ground by the courthouse, surrounded by a construction fence.

Installation was to have occurred Feb. 21. But a contractor grew concerned when affixing 37-inch steel support rods to the concrete foundation required more epoxy glue than expected.

That raised the possibility that the concrete had holes or that the epoxy was leaking into the ground. Another theory is that the calculations were wrong and that the concrete is fine. Because no one is sure, the next step will be to excavate and see what's underneath the concrete.

"We just have questions and want to be sure, because these columns are irreplaceable," said Barry German, regional construction manager for the state Department of General Services.

"It's like having the State House burn down," he said. "You'll never be able to put it back. And we don't want to put up something that might be unstable in a hurricane or windstorm."

No one is suggesting the project will have to be scrapped.

"That's pretty doubtful," said Brantley Davis of Murphy & Dittenhafer, the Baltimore architecture firm hired for the $69,000 state-funded project. "We've just got to understand the conditions. With structural designs, you can't do a lot of guesswork."

For the columns, the road back to uprightness has been long. Designed by famed architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, they first graced the Baltimore Exchange and Customs House, built in 1820. When that building was demolished in 1902, the columns adorned the Maryland Court of Appeals Building in Annapolis.

After that building was razed in 1972, the columns were put out to pasture, winding up in a field near the state prison complex in Jessup covered in weeds and vines.

Despite the treatment, the columns are reported to be in excellent condition.

Architects and state officials hope that erecting them at the northern gateway to the Annapolis historic district will serve as a reminder of the area's rich history. They also believe the creative reuse will blunt criticism of the Sweeney courthouse, which opened in 1998.

Some observers have said the three-color brick and glass structure does not blend with the historic look of Annapolis.

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