Old look close to gracing new site; Historic 1820 columns expected to rise at courthouse within weeks


Things are looking up for the eight aged marble columns that have been lying ignobly along Rowe Boulevard in Annapolis for several months. Within weeks, they are expected to rise again for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Workers are shoring up the concrete foundation outside the Robert F. Sweeney District Courthouse so it can support the scrolled Ionic columns, which stand 16 feet tall and weigh 2 tons each.

The resurrection will restore some glory to the pillars, first used in the 1820 Baltimore Exchange and Customs House and later at the Maryland Court of Appeals Building in Annapolis, which was razed in 1972.

Until last fall, the columns -- designed by U.S. Capitol architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe -- had lain in a field near the state prison in Jessup, covered in vines and weeds. By the middle of next month they may be free-standing again - though with nothing to support but air this time, said Barry German, regional construction manager for the state Department of General Services.

Bringing them back to Annapolis was seen as a way to enhance the appearance of the modern courthouse completed in 1998. Planners also felt a nod to the past would be an appropriate way to greet motorists entering the city's historic district from the north.

In February, though, after the restored columns had been hauled to the courthouse, contractors discovered apparent weaknesses in the concrete base at the courthouse. Further checking revealed no evidence of the reinforced steel rods contained in final drawings for the exterior plaza.

Washington-based Blake Construction Co., which built the courthouse, apparently followed earlier plans that did not include the steel rods, German said. Blake officials did not return calls yesterday, but German said the company is paying to install "a beefier footing" underneath the sport where the columns will stand in two rows of four.

"So you'll end up with a massive hunk of concrete with reinforced steel rods in it," German explained. He said he did not expect the delay to push the cost of the state-funded project much above $69,000.

He did not predict when the project would be finished.

"I would say probably three weeks, if we finish up all the footings and pour the concrete," he said. "But that's just a guess."

That is not so long given the columns' long and twisted history, he said, adding, "What's another couple months?"

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