“Memoirs of a Main Street Boy” An Annapolis Reflection, Part 10

| November 20, 2017
Rams Head

Main Street, circa 1935 (Photo credit: Maryland State Archives)

As I have lectured and done readings from my book about growing up in Annapolis—“Memoirs of a Main Street Boy”—the question I’m always asked is, “How has Annapolis changed since you were a youngster?”

As I write in the book, the Annapolis of my youth in the 1930s and 1940s changed dramatically in 1950. On one day—May 23—voters in neighborhoods surrounding the City increased its size sevenfold and doubled the population. After years of haggling, citizens approved annexation of Eastport, Germantown-Homewood, West Annapolis and Parole, increasing the City’s area from the three quarters of a mile, bounded by Spa and College Creeks, to encompass five-and-a-half square miles and raising the population from 10,000 to 20,000. So the kids that were neighborhood sports adversaries of my youth—such as the “Eastport Bonecrushers”—were now Annapolitans, though they didn’t appreciate it. Once an Eastporter (before annexation), always an Eastporter.

A bit earlier in 1950—February 5 to be exact—the bouncy swaying train rides I took to Baltimore ended for all travelers when passenger service to the Bladen Street rail station ended. Thereafter, you had to drive or take the bus. Transportation took an evolutionary step forward in 1952, the year I graduated from high school, with the opening of the first span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which ended the bay’s ferry service.

Changes on Main Street

Though I went off to the University of Maryland in the fall of 1952, I continued to live at 183 Main Street, where I grew up, on weekends and in the summer. So, I kept an eye on Main Street as its transformation continued. That transformation was symbolized by a single event—the moving of the Carroll Barrister House from Main Street, next door to where I lived, to the St. John’s College campus.

Our longtime neighbor Mary Ella Davis, who lived in the Carroll Barrister House, died on February 21, 1953, at age 81. Until she went to a convalescent home toward the end of her life, Miss Davis lived in the historic house her mother had bought in 1873. She was buried with a spray of the house’s ancient boxwood in her hand. That was the boxwood through which I always ran my fingers as I turned onto Conduit Street from Main Street, off on my youthful adventures. Her executors, relatives including her nephew—my friendly landlord—Arthur Elliott, disposed of her property, including the beloved boxwood hedges, which were older than the Revolution.

Known at the time as the “Carroll Davis House,” in honor of the Davis family owners, it would be turned to commercial use by Joe Greenfield, local clothing store owner and entrepreneur. To have an 18th century town house sitting in the middle of the City’s commercial district was something of an anomaly. But to demolish this historic and architectural gem, as Joe Greenfield planned, would have been sinful. Enter a recently formed group of preservationists called “Historic Annapolis,” led by the indomitable Anne St. Clair Wright. Formed in 1952, this preservation group had its eye on the destined-for-commercial Carroll Barrister House property from the start. Saving the house was a cause to rally around, and the group’s success in preserving the house gave it strength.

Joe Greenfield deeded the house to Historic Annapolis, which raised $20,000 to move it, and St. John’s College agreed to provide a campus site for it. Today, the old house rests gently on the St. John’s campus where it was deposited in 1955, since that day serving as administrative offices for the college. It was the first great preservation victory for Historic Annapolis and St. Clair Wright. There would be many more, including restoring William Paca’s illustrious house and gardens on Prince George Street; the Shiplap House, a small home, sawmill and tavern built in 1715; and the Victualling House, a warehouse across from City Dock at 77 Main Street, which had stored supplies for the Continental Army.

The Carroll Barrister property became a Burger King in 1957, an early entry in what I call the “restauranting” of Annapolis. Historic Annapolis’ efforts were so successful that more and more people wanted to visit Annapolis. The Naval Academy and the waterfront had always brought tourists to town, but now they came in waves to walk the Ancient City. And these tourists had to eat.

Restauranting of Annapolis

Eventually, one after another, my boyhood haunts and Annapolis landmarks turned into restaurants. Much to my chagrin, included were my two favorite youthful hideaways. Reynolds’ Tavern reverted to one of its original purposes, turning from library to tavern, and the pool room on Main Street eventually traded the pool tables for dining tables.

Restaurants weren’t the only things that changed, including the City Dock. By the 1950s, the Chesapeake Bay became as much a pleasure boating mecca as a fishing center. Where I rowed my castaway row boat on Spa Creek, sleek sailboats and massive yachts, some measuring more than 200 feet, plied the waters. Some of the smaller pleasure craft owners liked to show off their boats in the City Dock, which then took on the nickname “Ego Alley.”

The boating activity helped create another dramatic change in the waterfront. At my boyhood swimming holes on Spa Creek and Horn Point, the shoreline is filled with expensive condominiums where boatyards used to stand beside pristine coves and woods, and hundreds of sailboat masts line the piers in front of these condos.

Despite its evolution from broad colonial harbor to narrow “Ego Alley,” the City Dock has acted as the fulcrum of Annapolis’ fortunes. It was so in my youth. It is so now, still the base support for Main Street. If you stood at the head of the dock behind the statue of Alex Haley, as I did these many decades after the 1950s, you’d be reminded of the old proverb: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Sure, there are old things missing from Market Space and Main Street, including two of my favorites, the Carroll Barrister House and the Republic Theater. The small grocery stores and the five-and ten-cent stores are all gone, and so are the milliners and dry goods shops.

Beacons: Past, Present and Future

But the city’s four dominant spires still reach their way on high. The Naval Academy Chapel dome offers a beacon for the new, young midshipmen.   If you sail on the Severn today, past Greenbury Point, you’d see three of the former 19 radio towers still standing, tall sentries over location of the historic Providence settlement, precursor of Annapolis, now mostly submerged by the river.

The State House dome looks down on the City, covering the legislature in its annual meetings as it has for 200-plus years and protecting “the most historic room in America” where Washington resigned his military commission, a room restored in 2015 to look like it did 230 years ago. St. Anne’s Church’s clock tower bells continue to serenade its citizens from its Church Circle perch, and St. Mary’s Church steeple, as always, calls its parishioners to worship.

On Main Street, as recently as 2008 named “one of the great streets in America,” the store names have changed, but most of the store fronts remain as I remember them from my boyhood and working-class families still live in the apartments above the store, including 183 Main Street.

Yes, in Annapolis, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This is the final chapter in Ralph Crosby’s series.

Ralph will present a talk and reading, based on his book, on “Christmas in Annapolis in the Mid-20th Century” on Wednesday, December 6, 2017. It will be held from 7:00-8:00 p.m. at The Annapolis Bookstore, 53 Maryland Avenue. He’ll bring to life the sights and sounds of a simpler, more innocent time. He will also talk about Christmas in Annapolis during Colonial times, and recount when General George Washington gave his “Christmas farewell” in our small town.

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About the Author - Ralph Crosby

A native Annapolitan, Mr. Crosby is founder and chairman of Crosby Marketing, a national advertising/public relations firm headquartered in Annapolis.

Mr. Crosby’s book, “Memoirs of a Main Street Boy: Growing Up in America’s Ancient City,” is available at local bookstores (Annapolis Bookstore, Back Creek Books and Old Fox Books) or online at Amazon.com.

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