Annapolis by Candlelight is one of my favorite events of the year. Typically held over a weekend in November, this self-guided stroll run by Historic Annapolis invites you into privately-owned historic homes in the downtown area, over the course of two evenings. Docents are on hand to shed light on the homes’ histories, and the homeowners are often present to share details on what’s it like to live in a centuries-old property.
A Tradition At Risk
Acton Hall is featured on this year's Annapolis Candlelight Tour. Image courtesy of Historic Annapolis.
The event is typically considered an unofficial kickoff to the holiday season. But for 2020, the Historic Annapolis team knew early on that it wouldn’t be business as usual. “We hoped to be able to do it, but we sort of knew early on that it wasn’t going to happen,” says Carrie Kiewitt, Senior Vice President at Historic Annapolis. “No one was going to open their house to 1,500+ people, not to mention attendees not wanting to come out and stand in crowds.”
They considered scrapping it entirely, but that didn’t sit right, either. “It’s a really beloved Annapolis tradition,” says Kiewitt. “The more we thought about it, we started saying, is there a way to do it? And that’s when we came up with this idea.”
The team had just wrapped up creating a virtual tour of William Paca House, as an accessibility project to share the interior of the house with visitors who can’t make it up and down the house’s many staircases. So they thought, why not take that same approach with Annapolis by Candlelight? They reached out to a few homes to gauge interest, and the then-owner of Colonial-era Acton Hall signed on. Thus Annapolis by Candlelight was saved, and planning for an entirely new approach to the event commenced.
A New Footprint
The reimagined Annapolis by Candlelight will now take place on April 23, 2021, with video tours of select historic properties—some of which have never been showcased before. Instead of walking through the houses with a crowd of people, as is usually the case, this year’s event will be more intimate, with video tours led by HA’s Senior Historian, Glenn Campbell, paired with insight from a slew of other experts. Buildings on the program include Acton Hall and McDowell Hall at St. John’s College, as well as places farther afield, like Whitehall, a circa-1764 Georgian manor located out by Sandy Point.
Filming takes place inside Whitehall for this year's virtual Annapolis by Candlelight Tour. Image courtesy of Storia Studio.
“Whitehall would typically be very hard for us,” explains Kiewitt. One of the hallmarks of Annapolis by Candlelight is that is focuses on one neighborhood, with all of the sites located within easy walking distance. “Doing it virtually has allowed us to expand the footprint.”
It’s not just location. Video allows them to get into smaller places that wouldn’t be feasible for the general public. “They’re allowing us to get into spaces that normally we couldn’t let the general public into, just because of room. When you’re doing the tour with just a cameraman and a voiceover, you can get into some of these much smaller spaces,” says Kiewitt.
A New Twist Brings New Insights
Whitehall is often the venue for many weddings and will be featured on this year's tour. Image courtesy of Historic Annapolis.
In the case of Acton Hall, that means going up into the attic with Willie Graham, who was the architectural historian at Williamsburg for over 30 years and now consults on the restoration at the James Brice House. However at Whitehall, the tour takes you into the gardens, shows details like the workings of the water closet, and even accesses the private cemetery.
But it’s not just physical access. Annapolis by Candlelight is typically a sell-out event, which means visitors spend a limited time in each space before making room for the next wave of guests. With a virtual tour, time is no longer at a premium. “It will allow us to get a little more in depth into the history,” says Kiewitt.
The Patrick Creagh House was built between 1735-47 and was owned by free black man John Smith and his wife Lucy. Image courtesy of Annapolis Experience.
Take the Patrick Creagh House, on Prince George Street. Constructed between 1735 and 1747, it was later purchased by free African American, John Smith, and his wife, Lucy, who ran a popular bakery out of it in the early 19th century. “If you were going through on a traditional Candlelight tour, the history would be written up in the program, but [due to time] you may not hear much about it when you go through the house,” says Kiewitt. This year, they will have a representative from the National Park Service talking about the couple and what the house shares about life of African Americans over the centuries.
Another debut for 2021 is Primrose Hill. This 18th century farmhouse off of Hilltop Drive was home to colonial painter John Hesselius from 1763 until 1778. During this visual tour, HA’s curator of collections Robin Matty will share insight into his life and work—some of which is on display at the flagship William Paca House, fittingly enough.
How to Attend
Attendees this year can purchase tickets online; rates are $35 per household for General Admission, and $30 per household for HA members and volunteers. On April 23rd, registrants will receive an email link to the tour, which will be accessible until May 7th. “They can watch it in any way they want during that one-week period,” says Kiewitt, be it viewing it all one sitting or going back later to water or re-watch different segments. “They’ll be able to do it in any kind of way that’s comfortable for them.”
Primrose Hill was the home of colonial painter John Hesselius from 1763 until 1778. Image courtesy of Historic Annapolis.
I plan to be in the latter group, savoring one of my favorite events over multiple viewings. While I love the energy of doing Annapolis by Candlelight in person, I’m equally excited about this one, and the chance to experience the history of each house on a deeper level, even if from afar.