Volume 13, Issue 38 ~ September 22 - September 28, 2005
Donna Ware, top, stands before the recreated Lord Mayor’s clapboard post-in-ground cabin at Historic London Town and Gardens.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
by Scott Sowers

Think of Baltimore, and you think of row houses. Washington, D.C., is home to center-hall colonials, Victorians and federal townhouses. Drive through the suburbs, and you’ll see more ranchers and ramblers than you can shake a stick at. What about here in Chesapeake Country? If a house could stand as a metaphor for who we are, where we come from and where we’re going, what would it be?

In the Beginning
The smell of wood smoke hangs in the air in a small clearing. A copper-skinned boy tends a popping fire while nearby his mother prepares the evening meal. The boy’s father is in the hills above the clearing, stalking deer through a forest that stretches from just beyond the Atlantic Ocean to the edge of the Great Plains.

Four hundred years ago, natives of Chesapeake Country lived off the land, and the most plentiful building material was trees. In some ways, little has changed.

The Native Americans made good use of oaks, elms and maples by constructing primitive but sturdy long houses with stacked logs for exterior walls. Groups of families inhabited the long houses, anticipating the communes of the 1960s by about 400 years.

Depending on the season and the tribe, a less permanent and more mobile dwelling might be picked up as American Indians followed the sun and food. These circular, dome-roofed dwellings, called wickiups, were constructed of saplings set into the ground, bent into arcs and lashed in place. The covering of the frame not only insulated against the elements but also designated social status.

“Wealthier chiefs covered their wickiups with bark because the material was more expensive and time consuming. The commoners would be covered with woven mats,” says Wayne Clark, who is himself a chief, of the Office of Museum Services for the Maryland Historical Trust. Even back then, we set ourselves apart by fixing up our homes.

Visiting in the homes of hospitable Indians, Europeans discovered the pleasures and pain of nicotine addiction. With tobacco, the New World promised agricultural wealth. As Europeans eventually settled, the land that came to be called America saw its first building boom.

Settling for Siding
Walk across the unfinished floorboards of the Lord Mayor’s clapboard cabin at Historic London Town and Gardens. Stand by the molded mud fireplace and gaze at the South River through windows covered with neither glass nor screen. Imagine the unrelenting heat of summers with no air conditioning and the shivering cold of winter with no warm air blowing through registers. No insulation, glass or fans back then, and no penicillin, aspirin or antibiotics. It wasn’t just inconvenient. The environment was deadly, and people immigrating to the colonies died off in droves.

Early Native Americans lived in wickiups, above, dome-roofed dwellings made from saplings set into the ground, bent into arcs and lashed in place.
“The first people who get here are really up against it, with a life expectancy in the 20s,” says Orlando Ridout V. Ridout’s ancestors helped shape the history of Anne Arundel County; now he helps chart it as an architectural historian working for the Maryland Historical Trust, part of the same state agency where Wayne Clark works.

The first wave of immigrants flooded in to get rich quick. But first they had to survive the growing season, cut a deal with the native tribes and get back out with the goods. Many of the speculators had no plans on staying in these uncivilized environs. Home construction was down and dirty, fast and cheap.

The favored material was still wood, but instead of whole logs white men split trees into planks that were used for wall sheathing. Iron tools sped up construction and made possible what we now call siding.

The first homes in the new world were throwbacks to the dark ages. Roofs were sharply steep, a throwback to the days when thatch roofs needed a high pitch to shed water properly. There were no basements, slabs, footers or foundations. Houses held for dear life onto earth, to which they eventually returned by way of termites and rot.

At Historic London Town and Gardens, Donna Ware is executive director of the London Town Foundation as well as historic sites planner for Anne Arundel County. Part of her job is educating people about how and where we used to live.

Post-in-ground architecture was where it all started, she explains of a technique that now exists only in replica. “It’s an easy way to build that was expected to last 20 to 30 years,” Ware says.

Despite hardships, some settlers survived and defied the urge to go home by building houses designed to last. A new age was starting along the entire Eastern Seaboard. Prosperity would replace — or at least stand alongside — subsistence as Anglo traditions evolved into a place called America.

Newfound wealth in the colonies ushered in blocky, rectangular, Georgian homes, like the William Paca House, with massive chimneys, prominent dormers and tooth-like dentils around the roof line.
Homes Named After George
The subtle scraping sounds of mortar being skimmed from the surface of red brick ushered in a wave of permanence to building techniques of the 1700s. Wealth and the promise of prosperity lured speculators into becoming settlers. Like the Indian chiefs before them, the burgeoning merchant class of the New World displayed their success in the ways they built their homes. For design inspiration, they looked back to where they came from and found a style of house named for the three King Georges, who ruled England for most of the 18th century.

From 1700 to 1780, population in the colonies expanded to three million people. As immigrants sunk their roots into American soil, Georgian homes dominated urban architecture as far north as Maine and as far south as Savannah. Chesapeake Country offered fertile ground for tobacco cultivation and newfound wealth ushered in rectangular, blocky, Georgian homes that featured massive brick chimneys, prominent dormers and tooth-like dentils around the roof line. Double hung windows with nine or twelve panes per sash and paneled front doors crowned with more glass defined the type. The homes gradually grew more ornate with the addition of adornments like pilasters, projecting central facades, and roof balustrades. Yes, but what about Chesapeake Country? In areas short on stone, builders adopted what the region offered, wood siding or, in the South, red brick accented with white wood trim.

“They were building out of an Anglo tradition but adapting it with local materials and climate,” says Donna Hole, who is chief of the Historic Preservation Department of Planning and Zoning for the city of Annapolis. Stately, solid and symmetrical, Georgian homes “have a wonderful plan to them,” says Hole. “They speak to a social hierarchy. There would be a business room in the front with private areas in the rear facing out on a lovely garden.”

By 1820, the population in America had exploded to 10 million. In times changing faster than ever before, Georgians were pushed aside for innovation. Railways replaced waterways as the new land’s preferred means of transportation, and some of the important port cities of earlier years were bypassed. Annapolis was one of the port cities left behind, which is why some of those old Georgian homes survived.

Walk around downtown Annapolis and you can see some Georgians. Still standing regal and proud, they were built by America’s first crop of the economically elite. Meanwhile, out on the tobacco farms another branch of American building was growing. Like the Georgians, that architectural style is still with us today.

photo by Scott Sowers
Orlando Ridout V’s ancestors helped shape the history of Anne Arundel County; now he helps chart it as an architectural historian for the Maryland Historical Trust.
Birth of the Bay Cottage
A wooden wagon wheel creaks its way toward town as a team of horses pulls a load of tobacco to port, where it will be loaded onto a ship bound for England. The crop has been harvested by slaves on a plantation outside of town, where land is still plentiful and cheap enough to be given over to farming.

Planters of the 19th century settled in America to stay, so they built their homes off the ground. Brick and stone were used sparingly as crude foundations that would keep the buildings safer from rot and insects. Wood was still the most accessible building material. Shingles allowed shallower roof pitches that were more suitable to the heat in innovative low-ceilinged two-room houses.

Classified as folk houses, these simple wooden rectangles were built as a single story structure that featured a hall and a parlor. In America’s South another innovation, the porch, was designed to deal with the heat. Modern versions of the two-room-wide, one-room-deep form abound in Chesapeake Country today along highways and on city streets.  

As tobacco plantations became more profitable, the architectural unit multiplied, with each building serving s
pecialized functions. “We have a predilection here for rural Tidewater plantations,” says Ridout, “with numerous buildings: a dwelling house for the owner, kitchen, dairy, meat house, tobacco barn, corn cribs and slave housing.”

But change moved ever faster. By the late 1800s, plantation life was ending along with slavery. Railroad communities sprang up out of the dust as some port cities, including Annapolis, continued to decline.

By the early 1900s the backfire of internal combustion engines was sending horsepower permanently out to pasture. The automobile was taking people to places the railroad couldn’t reach. With change, architecture had splintered into assorted styles, movements, revivals and fads. But even now, we can still see signs from where we came.

Plantation houses like Sotterly Mansion often began as simple, single-story rectangles with a hall and a parlor. As tobacco plantations in Chesapeake Country became more profitable, the buildings grew, including outbuildings for kitchen, harvested crops and slaves.
Back to the Present
The sounds of hammers banging nails is the music of Chesapeake Country. Saws scream through the still suburban air as population expansion continues to carry more people toward the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.  

Examine the plans of the new homes, and you may catch a trace of Georgian influence. Ponder the dormers, brick chimneys and white wood trim and you’re looking through a window to what came before. Look at the roof lines and you may see a resemblance to a tobacco barn of the past. Along the streets, small wooden rectangular homes abound, but instead of corn cribs and meat houses, our sheds and garages are packed with lawn mowers and snow blowers.

Nowadays there is no dominant style of architecture, but there is a dominant concept: Bigger is better.

“The only common theme is square footage,” says second-generation builder Ray Gauthier of Lynbrook of Annapolis Inc. “It’s growing, growing, growing.” Gauthier is backed up by statistics. In 1973, the average American home was 1,660 square feet. By 2004, square footage had risen to 2,400 square feet, an increase of almost 70 percent.

Builders like Gauthier are hired by architects, and the architects are hired by the homeowners. “You ask yourself, aesthetically, why does it have to be that big?” Gauthier says. “It’s kind of a shame. But it’s my living, so it’s a good thing for me.

A Little Place in Town
Boaters, midshipmen and Johnnies are window shopping on an early fall evening as music spills out of open shop doors and mixes in with the crowd. People point and laugh, flirt and stroll as the boats spin around in Ego Alley. Tourists and townies stand by a sculpture of Alex Haley to watch the maritime ballet.

You can’t build the biggest house in downtown Annapolis no matter how much money you have because there are rules. The rules emanate from the Historic Preservation Department, housed in a former firehouse across from City Hall.

A citizen with a little edge in her voice stands at the counter and asks a staff member to see the plans for a fence that’s going up near her property. An elderly gentleman ducks in out of the heat wanting to hand deliver a document to the woman in charge, who works only by appointments.

The woman in charge, enforcer of the rules and some say the preserver of the charm of Annapolis — is Donna Hole. Hole reigns over a 44-block, red-lined zone within the city of Annapolis that includes the campus of St. John’s College, State Circle, Church Circle and all of downtown. Besides the Annapolis Historic District, which is Hole’s realm, there are also lines drawn around the National Register District and the National Historic Landmark District, making three concentric rings of rules, regulations, and red tape.

The mix of property within the borders of the Annapolis Historic District includes commercial space, public buildings, privately owned homes and rental units. Hole’s office distributes a detailed pamphlet that outlines what the rules are regarding making changes to fences, awnings, windows, doors, signs, porches, exterior lights and most everything else. If you live in the historic district and want to make some improvements to your property, there’s a good chance you’ve dealt with Hole or her staff.

“People do bite the bullet and do it because they want to live in that kind of property,” Hole says.

Annapolis works as a place to live, own a business, visit and shop. The town has been preserved because, somewhere along the line, people decided to slow down change. They had a community and architecture that worked. They had a treasure that needed protection, and they became involved to make sure it remained intact.

The once common Bay cabin is a fast-disappearing architectural style being torn down and replaced by McMansions.
A Little Place on the Water
Out on Ridout Creek, a deep-water sliver named for Orlando Ridout V’s distant relatives, a 42-foot sailboat glides into sheltered water and drops anchor for the night. The sailor onboard is totally self-contained in his floating fiberglass home. As lights come on in the houses onshore, he’ll cook dinner on a rail-mounted grill, read quietly in his berth by a 12-volt lamp powered by the boat’s generator and be rocked to sleep by the incoming tide. He is unaware of the small skirmishes fought house to house by the water’s edge.

By now it’s a familiar story. Rich people from somewhere else come in and buy a small house. They knock the house down and put up a much larger house, often alienating the old timers living nearby. Stir the controversy and serve daily.

But just like downtown there are rules governing what kind of house you can build in Chesapeake Country — even if it often doesn’t seem so. The one with the sharpest teeth is The Chesapeake Bay Protection Act of 1984. Also known as the Critical Area Act, the law tries to protect the Bay by regulating development within 1,000 feet of tidal waters and adjacent to tidal wetlands.

Restrictions limit the amount of impervious surface, which includes roofs, buildings, driveways and sidewalks. According to the law, impervious surfaces can’t exceed 15 percent of the total land area that a house sits on. But it’s not that simple. There are exceptions, and in some cases state law defaults to local rulings. Still, some good is being done.

“The Critical Area Act makes the state keep the environment clean. The challenge is getting the size of the house the client wants,” says architect Marta Hansen of Allbright/Hansen Architects. One of the ways local architects are keeping their customers satisfied and playing by the rules is by designing houses with outdoor rooms that include terraces, gazebos and decks. Some of the homes end up looking like a compound of small specialized buildings, a throwback to what tobacco farmers were building in the 1700s.  

photo by Scott Sowers
“I’m afraid we’re dying the death of a thousand cuts,” says Donna Hole, chief of the Historic Preservation Department for the city of Annapolis. Rules and regulations put bandages on the cuts of suburban sprawl, while property rights and big money wield the knife.
Building 21st Century Style
The turbo-charged diesel clatters away as the tractor trailer sits by the freshly poured curbstones. The noise increases as the idle speed rises to move the hydraulics of the crane attached to the truck. The superstructure of the crane bows slightly as it hoists a section of a pre-fab home into position where it will be attached by the crew of nail gun-wielding workmen. Basic construction will be completed in a week, and the tradesmen will have their work done in a month. Then the family can move in.

People today are attracted to Chesapeake Country for the same reason they were in the 1600s. It’s close to the water. We no longer trade in human flesh nor much in tobacco. But settlers still come, and once they get here, they will build, add on and remodel.

“The biggest threat is population growth and ever more density,” says Ridout. “This place is booming. We’re an easy commute from two of the largest cities in the country, and it’s a heck of a nice place to live.”

According to the 2000 census, population in Anne Arundel County rose 14 percent from 1990 to 2000. Calvert, the fastest growing county in the state, is up 16 percent in the last four years. Sit in the traffic on the capital beltway and your worst fears of what can happen will be realized.

But what can we do to keep Chesapeake Country a heck of a nice place to live?

We can’t throw a fence around the county lines to protect our perfect homes. We’re a mobile people. Everybody who’s ever lived here, including the Native Americans, walked, sailed or flew from somewhere else. As Americans, we’re allowed to live where we want and to build a damn big house if we have the wherewithal and the zoning. But there is some evidence that the rubberband of over-development and McMansions is beginning to snap back. Today’s perfect house — here and everywhere else — may be shrinking.

“The rules are having an impact,” says architect Kirk Allbright of Allbright/Hansen Architects. “People are making smaller homes.”

Laws like the Critical Area Act are legislating people into building smaller houses. A few years ago, Susan Susanka’s book The Not So Big House touched a nerve, riding Amazon’s bestseller list for two years. Builder Gauthier gushes about two “architectural jewels” he just finished work on, each coming in around 3,000 square feet. They’re still larger than the national average, but they’re also a long way from the 10,000-square-footers littering the landscape.

Speak up for Your Values
At a zoning meeting in a small community south of the state capital, a handful of citizens are upset about what’s happening. A businessman in shirt sleeves pulls at his white collar and tries to assure them as a government official asks for quiet so everybody gets a chance to be heard. The tedium of zoning hearings and council meetings can be a tough sit. And the number of people who have the patience or the interest seems to be shrinking.

“There used to be a broad base of people involved,” says Annapolis historic planner Hole. “Now people at hearings are there for a specific case on their street protecting their view of the water.”

Modern life is fast and complicated, and sometimes it’s hard to see the relevance of complex urban planning issues. “They’re taking their kids to soccer. They don’t have time to learn local history,” says Ridout. “People are so overloaded, it’s one more meeting they don’t have time to go to.”

Even in places you think are safe, the battle still rages on.

“Their attitude is Annapolis is saved. We’re taken care of. But I’m afraid we’re dying the death of a thousand cuts,” says Hole. Rules and regulations put bandages on the cuts of suburban sprawl, while property rights and big money wield the knife.  

Play by the Rules
In office buildings downtown, in Crownsville or out on Riva Road, you’ll find acoustical tile ceilings, fluorescent lighting, commercial carpeting or maybe cracked tile floors. Amid computers and government-issue furniture, planners are encrypting the building codes of our future.

They’re watching out for us and looking for cues about what we think is important. We are the citizens — the people living in houses inspired by Georgian architecture and folk dwellings; the people who are worried about huge houses, or not; the people concerned about where a Wal-Mart wants to go, or not; the people playing by the rules, or not.  

“The efforts in the planning office are to have preservation mechanisms in place through county code. We’re not saving everything but we have made progress,” says Anne Arundel County historic sites planner Ware. “Developers know when they come into the county, they are going to have to protect historic sites and archaeological sites.”

On construction sites all over Chesapeake Country, foundations are being dug, additions are going on and houses are springing up. Architects draw plans, while government officials and historians watch and worry about where it’s all heading.

Many of us know what the perfect house in Chesapeake Country looks like, because we already live in it. It may look like a Georgian, or small rectangle or a ranch or a rambler. What makes it perfect is that it belongs to us and it’s located in a place where we like to live — a place where vigilance and vision are required to keep the life we love intact.

About the Author
After a stint in Eastport, Scott Sowers has returned to Silver Spring, living in a mid-century modern house. He has written and produced more than 100 television shows on architecture and design for HGTV and written several design-based features for The Washington Post. Most recently in Bay Weekly, he profiled musician Deanna Bogart [Vol. xiii, No. 30: July 28].


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