The story begins in 1744 with Colonial Governor Thomas Bladen starting construction on his official residence. Work commenced with a legislative appropriation of £4,000 ($662,000 today) on one of the largest and most elaborate houses in all of the colonies. The 14,000 square foot house had a footprint 80 feet by 60 feet. The brick walls reached two stories above a raised basement on high ground commanding views of all of Annapolis. There were Portland stone entrance steps imported from England, and a grand entertainment space with a two-story high interior.
Unfortunately, the walls were left without a roof. Work stopped for lack of additional appropriations. “Bladen’s Folly” stood as a ruin for nearly fifty years. Imagine the presence of this massive moldering ruin at the time all of the great 18th-century homes of Annapolis were built.
After the Revolutionary War the ruins and property were confiscated from the British. In 1788, the building was completed with a third floor, roof and bell tower cupola, and has been in use by St. John’s College ever since. When we look at McDowell Hall today, the bottom two thirds is Bladen’s Folly. In the 1788 renovation, Bladen’s two-story entertainment space was doubled in size. Today it is the beautiful Great Hall in McDowell, and is a spectacular example of an eighteenth century salon. The architect of Bladen’s Folly was Simon Duff. As an early architect/builder, he relied on English “architectural pattern books” to create his designs. These books depicted the latest “Georgian” architectural styles, derived from the work of Italian architect Andrea Palladio. The architect of McDowell Hall was Joseph Clark, who was also the architect of the State House dome. Clark went beyond imitating style books to create his own designs. The similarities of the State House Dome and McDowell Cupola are fascinating. Both have eight-sided bases surmounted by domed cupolas with acorn finials, yet the dramatic difference of architectural scale and monumentality perfectly fit each building. It is a remarkable accomplishment for one architect.
While Bladen’s house was under construction, Edmund Jennings, Secretary of the Province of Maryland and Chief Judge, began building his own mansion on land now consumed by the Naval Academy. Jennings had the resources to complete his mansion, which shared striking similarities of size and floor plan to Bladen’s Folly. Both houses featured grand two-story entertainment salons. The Jennings house featured a long broad garden sloping down to the mouth of the Severn River as it opens into the Chesapeake Bay. It has been described as a place of great serenity and grandeur.
Edmund Jennings rented his house to Colonial Governor Horatio Sharp during his term 1753-1768. When Sharp was replaced by Colonial Governor Thomas Eden in 1769, the Jennings family sold the house for £1,000 ($150,000 today) to Governor Eden, who received his appointment by his marriage to the daughter of Charles Calvert 5th Lord of Baltimore. A drinker and gambler, Eden excused himself to England to avoid any unpleasantness during the Revolution. The house and property was confiscated after the Revolution to become the first official residence of the Governor of the State of Maryland. It continued to serve as the official residence until 1869, hosting many U.S. presidents and world dignitaries.
The Naval Academy was established in 1845 and situated on the east flank of the Governor’s House. During the Civil War the Naval Academy moved to Newport, R.I. After the war, there were rumors that the Academy would not return to Annapolis. Political pressure in Maryland to “recapture” the Academy must have been intense. The Governor’s House and property were viewed by the Academy as an obstacle in expanding the campus back toward the city. In
1869, the State sold the property to the Academy for $25,000 ($410,000 today). Incorporated into the Academy’s post Civil War expansion, it was heavily modified, enlarged and finally demolished in 1901. Today, sadly, you can only stand in front of the Superintendent’s Quarters and imagine the Governor’s House where George Washington once slept and dined many times.
The demolition of the first official Governor’s House by the Naval Academy was a great loss to the State. To make up for the loss, the legislature moved to create a meaningful replacement worthy of the admiration of the citizens of Maryland. The story of this Governor’s Mansion, and its transformation into the mansion we see today, is the subject of the next installment of this series.
By: Chip Bohl
Photography Courtesy of Celia Pearson
From Annapolis Home Magazine
Vol. 3 ,No. 2 2012