The History of Historic Annapolis

Historic Annapolis -- From The 'Athens of America' to Today

From its earliest days as a colonial capital city, Annapolis was known as the "Athens of America." For here one could find a wealth of cultural activities, a glittering social season, gracious hospitality and intellectual stimulation. The small seaport brought visitors from around the world who shared the news of the day while enjoying the ambiance and exquisite tidewater cuisine of the local pubs.

You will find the same atmosphere today, drawing more than four million people a year to its shores. Annapolis has been welcoming visitors for more than 300 years, but it remains a wonderful place to live, work and raise a family.

The capital of Maryland was originally called "Providence" when settled by the Puritans. It was later called "Anne Arundel's Towne" after the wife of Lord Baltimore, who owned the proprietary colony. It wasn't until a Royal Governor, Sir Francis Nicholson, moved the capital here from St. Mary's City that the small seaport received its present name. Sir Francis chose to honor Princess Anne, heir to the throne. In 1708, as Queen, she chartered her colonial namesake as a city. Her royal badge, with a crown over the entwined thistle of Scotland and Tudor rose of England, is depicted on the Annapolis flag.

Sir Francis designed a city worthy of a Queen. Instead of using a customary grid, he constructed a baroque plan similar to the magnificent capitals of Europe. He drew circles with radiating streets to create focal points and give importance to certain structures. In one circle is St Anne's, the Episcopal Church, regarded as the spiritual center of the city. As the Church of England, it was originally supported by taxpayers.

In the other circle, rising over the harbor, is the State House, the seat of government. This urban design was admired by frequent visitor George Washington, who later had Pierre L'Enfant incorporate it into the nation's capital.

A thriving shipping industry brought great wealth to Annapolis, reflected quality of life. Prosperous merchants and "planters" sought to duplicate the amenities of their homeland in the colonies, and built mansions that would rival any in England. These homes, which entertained many of our Founding Fathers, had ballrooms and formal gardens where lavish social functions occurred.

Today, Annapolis has more of these original 18th century structures standing than any other city in the United States. Many are open to the public, where, their beauty and architectural style is a major attraction. Historic Annapolis Foundation operates the William Paca house as a museum, and also has a wealth of information about many of the other historical treasures.

The landed gentry also brought another passion from home to the colonies. Horse racing began here with the importation of several of the "foundation" breeders of today's thoroughbred champions. Race Week, and the festivities surrounding it, brought enthusiasts from all over the colonies to watch and wager. In one of his diaries, George Washington laments losing a few shillings at the Annapolis track.

The arts abounded in colonial Annapolis, as performers, skilled artisans, and artists practiced their trades here. The Peale family, noted portraitists, found many prominent and wealthy patrons here. John Shaw, a cabinetmaker, designed quality furniture and was responsible for much of the construction of The Maryland State House, the oldest such capital building in continuous use in the United States. Annapolis also featured the first theater in the new world.

You will find that same appreciation for the cultural arts in Annapolis today. Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts is a thriving center for studying, exhibiting, performing, and practicing the arts. Resident companies include the ballet, symphony, opera, and chorale who all give performances in its 800 seat auditorium. It is also home to resident artists who teach and maintain studios there and frequently exhibit in the galleries on the premises. Thousands of students of all ages take classes in the visual and performing arts.

Annapolis has a number of other theaters and performing arts companies. You can enjoy concerts and quality performances throughout the year in a number of venues throughout our city.

For many, Annapolis is synonymous with the United States Naval Academy. However, this world famous institution isn't even the oldest college in town. That distinction belongs to St. John's College, founded in 1696 as King William's School. It is the third oldest college in the United States (after Harvard and William and Mary). Its liberal arts curriculum is based upon study of the Great Books. Every spring, the two schools engage in a spirited game of croquet on the front lawn of St.John's campus.

Government has always played a major part in the ongoing operations of Annapolis. The same State House where George Washington tendered his resignation as General of the Continental Army following the Revolutionary War is still charged with energy during the three months every year the Maryland General Assembly meets in its chambers. The Governor and Lieutenant Governor have their offices there, and it is used for a number of state functions throughout the year.

Annapolis has great historical significance for other reasons. The capital of Maryland was the country's capital when the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War, was signed here. All four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence had impressive homes in Annapolis, which still stand today.

The same Tidewater cuisine which was appreciated in our colonial period is still a major part of Annapolis hospitality. The many pubs and restaurants in town offer Maryland specialties from the Chesapeake Bay. Some even date back to the 18th century. As in colonial Annapolis, music is a part of the ambiance, and almost any night of the week you can find live entertainment in a number of venues.

The Chesapeake still plays a major role in commerce, even though Annapolis eventually lost out on the shipping trade to a much deeper harbor in Baltimore. Recreational boating, fishing, sailing and racing are activities that take place year round in Annapolis and are responsible for a vigorous maritime industry. Supply and service establishments dot the shoreline and comprise a major part of the local economy.

Annapolis is a very popular port of call for international sailors and its anchorage features transoms from all over the world. Four years ago, the Whitbread competitors stopped here, and this spring the Volvo fleet returned. An annual Maritime Heritage festival is held on the City Dock to celebrate this aspect of the Annapolis lifestyle. In the fall, the largest in the water boat shows in the world are held on successive weekends for sail and power enthusiasts respectively.

As delightful as Annapolis is by water, its very human scale makes it a wonderful subject for a walking tour. Many of these attractions, including the Naval Academy and St. John's College, are right in the Historic District. Best of all, the Visitors Center, with its adjoining garage, is also located right at the entrance to town. A pleasant stroll along tree lined streets will take you to museums, restaurants and some wonderful shops.

Whether you come for the history, the education, the water or the hospitality, there is always something going on in Annapolis for you to enjoy. Check out the events going on now, and look at our annual calendar to see what will be happening the rest of the year.




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