A restored Star-spangled Banner, originally sewn by Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill in her East Pratt Street home and flown over Fort McHenry in the British attack of 1814, debuted several weeks ago to wide acclaim in its new gallery home at the National Museum of American History in Washington.
Recent press accounts about the flag's reappearance prompted W. Boulton Kelly, the noted Baltimore architect and preservationist, to drop me a note.
He had been a member of the governor's commission for the 1964-1965 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., and his firm, Tatar and Kelly and Van Fossen Schwab Architects, was the associated architects for the design of the Maryland Pavilion.
The pavilion featured a simulated Chesapeake Bay wharf where fairgoers could dine on "crab burgers," a fast-food version of Maryland first lady Helen Avalynne Tawes' famous crab cakes.
"The wharf would sit in a man made pond surrounded by water and two quite tall flag poles, one flying the Maryland flag, the other, taller, sporting an actual full-sized replica of the 1814 flag at Fort McHenry," Kelly wrote.
In early 1964, 75 needlewomen began assembling the replica on the 5th Regiment Armory floor. The banner measured 30 by 42 feet, faithful to the original, and was created from fabric woven by Baltimore Weavers Guild members.
Some of the fabric used in the replica was woven in the Flag House attic, where Pickersgill, no doubt, had labored away 150 years earlier, according to Eric Voboril, assistant director and curator of the Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum.
The seamstresses worked eight hours a day and completed the flag, which required about 500,000 stitches and three miles of linen thread, on March 13.
"I remember the tremendous interest and devotion that kept the project on track. At the proper time with some ceremony the flag found its way to New York and was hoisted on the larger of the two poles (75-feet)," Kelly wrote.
"Rather than seeing the flag stretch out in full glory, it fell limply straight down along the pole and never changed position. Our structural engineer said casually that it would take a hurricane to make it fly!" Kelly said in a telephone interview the other day.
"So we changed direction and had a new one made of sail cloth and it flew constantly, heralding the building and the event as promoted, but not like the original," he said.
The flag that subbed for the replica was a 30-by-42-foot modern wool-nylon replica, reported state archivist Edward Papenfuse, whose help I had sought in trying to find out what happened to the replica flag.
During our conversation, Kelly raised interesting questions: "What was the weight differential between the original and the replica? Could the blasts from explosions of rockets and bombs been strong enough to make the flag fly? Where is the replica today?"
I called Ann Beegle, executive director of the Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum, who proved most helpful. "The copy of the original was too heavy, while the original was made with wool bunting, which is very lightweight and almost linen-like," Beegle said.
There's the question of what flag Francis Scott Key actually saw waving during the bombardment that moved him to pen "The Star-Spangled Banner."
It was raining the night of the British attack on Fort McHenry. "They would not have flown the 30-by-42 flag but a smaller storm flag that measured 17 by 25 feet. That's what flew over the fort during the battle," Beegle said.
Historians agree that what Key saw the next morning was the larger flag.
In his book, The Dawn's Early Light, Baltimore-born author Walter Lord included a footnote from the correspondence of Robert J. Barrett, a British midshipman: "As the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign on their battery and fired at the same time."
Army regulation required that a signal gun be fired at 9 a.m. each day, and it is believed that was the larger, dry flag that accompanied the daily ceremony Key saw unfolding in the morning breeze.
Back to the replica. It resides in the Flag House, reported Beegle.
"It's in the living room so people get a sense of how enormous it is. It's folded, and if unfolded would be bigger than the first floor of the house," Beegle said.