Annapolis City Plan

Annapolis is a unique city. Her combination of four salient features is not found in any other city in America. First, the design of the city is a complex composition of monumental circles with radiating streets superimposed on a regular street grid. Second, the street plan ingeniously engages the topography of the land and the waterfront. Third, while the design aims at monumentality, the scale of the city is intimate and personal. Fourth, the city is over 300 years old, and survives today largely intact.

The city was designed by Francis Nicholson as soon as he was appointed Governor of the Colony in 1694. The Crown instructed Nicholson to create a new capital city for the colony, complete with buildings for the seat of government, the church, a market, and building lots to be sold for homes and businesses. The new capitol city was funded by establishing that the import and export of goods could only occur in the ports of Annapolis and Oxford, on the other shore of the Chesapeake Bay. There were harsh penalties for not paying import and export duties. Centralization would allow the efficient collection of taxes, and establish a locus of power. The Crown needed a new capital city with the monumentality to maintain its authority in a distant land.

When Nicholson went to the site of the new capitol city, there were few or no buildings to be seen. Some previous settlements there were called Proctor’s Landing, Anne Arundel Town, Arundelton and Severn, all failed to last. The main attraction: it had one of the best natural harbors in the area.

The 1695 Annapolis City Plan by Francis Nicholson was depicted in the 1718 survey by James Stoddard.  The large circle is State Circle, the smaller is Church Circle. The large irregular parcel below State Circle connecting it directly to the city harbor was set aside for Nicholson. Courtesy of the Maryland State Archives.

Nicholson was in London for two years prior to his appointment as Maryland Governor. There he knew the architect Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul’s the English Baroque Episcopalian Cathedral (1675-1710). He also knew the landscape architect John Evelyn, who had developed an innovative Baroque urban plan for the rebuilding of London after the devastating fire of 1666. The similarities of Evelyn’s plan for London and Nicholson’s plan of Annapolis are striking. The oval street around London’s St. Paul’s has radiating streets superimposed over a regular street grid. Also of note is that the radiating streets are not precisely symmetrical, and St. Paul’s is built on the highest ground in London.

Baroque architecture reached its peak in Italy in the mid 1600s. The stylistic influence of the Baroque is still global and enduring. In France the Dome des Invalides 1676 by architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart epitomizes the French baroque, and was the building that inspired the Chapel dome at the U.S. Naval Academy. Baroque architecture is frequently linked with European colonization of the period, and used with great effect in South America in the construction of important churches by the Catholic Church. It is therefore not surprising that the English Crown would endorse a Baroque plan for an entire city to be the new capital of their Maryland colony.

Nicholson fully grasped the London street plan theory. He also had the vision to see the potential of dynamic Baroque design concepts. For Annapolis he created a new plan embracing the natural features of the site, functionally engaging the harbor, and exploiting the dramatic potential of the high ground. His design created complicated urban sequences, a rich variety of building sites, street views capturing sights of the water, and established monumental settings for important institutional buildings.

The two highest points of land became the centers of Church Circle and State Circle. Radiating streets set roughly at compass points diagonally cross the regular street grid. The radiating streets set up the monumental views toward the Church and State House. The regular streets: Duke of Glouchester, Prince George, Charles, and Market, all terminate in water views. The most dramatic of all the streets is Main Street, directly connecting the harbor with Church Circle. The man made vertical spike of St. Anne’s Church steeple at the top of Main Street is the counter point to the natural horizontal line of the horizon over the Chesapeake Bay. Nicholson created what all artists strive for: the emotional connection of mortals to nature; of individual to society; and of man to their own constructs.

View up Main Street to St. Anne's steeple

Governor Nicholson created the city plan specifically to establish Annapolis as a place of tax collection and seat of power for the Crown. Placing the State House and the Church of England buildings in street circles on the highest hills was one way to create civic monumentality. Radiating streets generate impressive approaches to these institutions. The entire composition commands attention at every level. The sophistication achieved is unmatched in any other colony. Not until the 1790s, one hundred years later, in the urban plan of Washington D.C. do we see anything to surpass it.

But the circles are not perfectly round or precisely oval, and their buildings are not positioned near the centers. The streets that radiate from the monumental hilltops do not align with the circle centers. West, South, East and North Streets are not accurately directed to the compass points, for which they are named. The street layouts cut awkwardly through building lots, creating triangular and trapezoidal property lines.

Consequently the buildings of Annapolis have a general pattern of being askew to the street or are irregular in footprint. The State House Dome and St. Anne’s Steeple are off center when viewed from any of the radiating streets. Because the city has been built out over 300 years, there are random juxtapositions like the modest frame early 20th century town houses immediately beside the monumental Brice House mansion of 1773. Even the Hammond Harwood House, which could be described as the most beautiful and “perfect” house, is placed inexplicitly close to the street corner.

These many irregularities and accidents of life have infused Annapolis with the most fascinating of all human frailties: imperfection. In this balanced dichotomy of the monumental with the humble, the city achieves its defining characteristic. It is charming.

The fact that Annapolis survives today is a remarkable accident of history. It reached its peak of architectural, social and political importance at the time of the Revolutionary War. By 1800, Baltimore completely eclipsed it. Had Annapolis continued to develop, all of its wonderful pre-revolutionary buildings would have been replaced by the rapid economic and technological growth of the nineteenth century. Annapolis maintained just enough economic activity as State Capital and home of US Naval Academy to keep it from sliding into obscurity as did Williamsburg Virginia, also planned by Francis Nicholson. When Annapolis was “rediscovered” in the 1970’s, the pressure to tear down and build up anew was met with the timely emergence of the historic building preservation movement.

Looking at Annapolis today we find: the oldest State House in continuous use; the Hammond Harwood House, Paca House, Bordley Randall House, three Brice family homes, Ogle Hall, Chase Lloyd Home, Acton Hall, McDowell Hall, Upton Scott and Ridout houses. These are hands down the greatest collection of 18th century grand mansions in America. The wonderful assortment of 18th, 19th and 20th century residential and commercial buildings has grown organically around these mansions. But these individual buildings are not the most important feature of Annapolis. As was recognized by architect Ernest Flagg in 1905 when he graciously aligned the U.S. Naval Academy campus gates with the city streets. The most important feature is the city itself. The Baroque plan married to the natural topography and waterfront creates a rich variety of urban spatial arrangements that makes this one of the most sublime places in which to live and work.