May 9, 2011

$3.1M renovation of old House of Delegates chamber takes it back to the Victorian era

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Renovated Old House of Delegates chamber

Renovated Old House of Delegates chamber

By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Starting this summer, visitors to the State House will be able to transport themselves to the Victorian Era in Annapolis in the old House of Delegates chamber – complete with ornate paintings, luxurious furnishings and intricate carpeting.

The long-planned re-creation of the chamber as it appeared in the late 1800s is nearly complete. The newly renovated room, where the House of Delegates met until the current chamber was finished in 1904, has been under construction for about two years.

“The Maryland State House has been in use for four centuries,” said Elaine Rice Bachmann, director of artistic property, exhibits and outreach for the Maryland State Archives. “There is a great focus in the building about the 18th century, but there has been no space representing the 19th century.”

And, she added, the 19th century is when Maryland dealt with the Civil War, as well as wrote and ratified the 1867 constitution, which is still the law of the state today.

The entire project cost about $3.1 million, said Alexandra Hughes, communications director for Speaker of the House Mike Busch. About $2.8 million has been spent on construction, and about $300,000 went toward architectural work and design. The project, which is slated to open to the public by July, will finish $700,000 under budget, Hughes said.

Photograph circa 1893-1904 of old House of Delegates chamber.

Photograph circa 1893-1904 of old House of Delegates chamber. From State Archives

Designed and re-created from 1880s photographs and descriptions, the chamber was transformed from two rooms – a meeting room and a room with historical displays including the silver service from the USS Maryland – into one large chamber, just as it looked in the 1880s.

Bachmann said that photographs taken in that decade, as well as extensive documentation of a renovation done in 1876, have been the foundation for the work done in the chamber. Desks have been built to match the original furnishings, panels placed on the ceiling have been painstakingly painted, and the ornate carpet was digitally recreated.  Reproduction light fixtures – outfitted with modern lights – have been constructed. Draperies are currently being made to dress the large windows. And the paintings that actually hung in the chamber during those 19th century debates have returned to the walls.

The only real guesswork involved was the colors of the room, since the photographs are black and white, Bachmann said. Historians studied the time period and chose an elegant gold-toned palette with highlights of rich burgundy, blue and green.

The reconstructed room has far fewer desks than the former chamber, which once was the workspace for more than 120 legislators. However, there is likely to be legislative work done in the new chamber. During the session that ended last month, some committees held brief meetings in the room. But care was also taken to wire up the reconstructed historic chamber with everything needed to hold a modern legislative meeting, including a projection screen and other audiovisual equipment.

Hughes said that Busch will decide what sort of meetings go on in the historic chamber, but he will likely limit it to special meetings and deliberations.

  • Angie Boyter

    I wonder if the resulting laws would be different if the current House of Delegates met in this kind of atmosphere.

  • Anonymous

    If perception is reality, what kind of message does this send to MD taxpayers? More window dressing while taxpayers flounder, drowning in rising taxes & fees to cover budgetary overspending by our state legislature. This seems like a “let them eat cake” moment to me. Might I suggest that those delegates meeting in this room return to the Victorian age pay-scale? That I’m sure would never happen.