James Brice would be pleased. The Annapolis native and colonial-era leader died in 1801, but these days he just might be smiling down on Historic Annapolis’ renovations to the famed James Brice House.
In 1767, the twenty-year-old James Brice was flush with cash and endowed with two inherited empty lots, and so he began building a gorgeous brick mansion in a posh Annapolis neighborhood. His imposing brick house still dominates the corner of Prince George and East Streets.
Recording Every Detail
The young gentleman kept meticulous records of his expenses during the seven-year building process. He seems to have noted every little item in his ledger books, including an early entry for 27 shillings six pence spent for “Rum at laying Corner Stone.” That cornerstone remains visible in his cellar today, carved with the words, “The Beginning.”
We remember James Brice today partly because he was a careful record keeper whose ledger book survived, although he was also a lawyer, gentleman planter, civic leader, militia officer, Annapolis mayor, and acting governor of Maryland. James Brice’s accounts are proving to be a rare and priceless resource for the Historic Annapolis preservationists who are now working to restore his mansion to its 1774 appearance.
Building the extravagant home played havoc with James Brice’s finances, and he left his large family in debt when he died. That said, he must be a very happy ghost now, despite having watched from the afterlife as his beautiful grand home was sold out of the family.
The Restoration Begins
To turn the tide, the State of Maryland purchased his house in 2014 and then contracted with the nonprofit Historic Annapolis to manage and restore the mansion. Historic Annapolis has assembled a team of preservation experts and archaeologists to analyze the building’s structure, including its paint, plaster, masonry, metal, and wood elements.
The archaeologists have excavated extensively, to date uncovering and cataloging at least 65,071 artifacts. They’ve also found 89 features in the dirt and cellar subfloor that are not being removed but provide evidence of the original floor and exterior landscaping.
Cobalt blue pottery shards found in the Basement of the Brice House
The experts are using the treasure trove of detail in the colonial builder’s account books to guide their research and plan the state-of-the art restoration. They are also fortunate to have a detailed inventory of James Brice’s estate taken in 1802.
As a prelude to the full restoration, the Historic Annapolis team is carefully installing modern building systems so that future visitors can safely and comfortably see the building as a finished museum. The next phase of the construction is replacement of the existing terracotta roof tiles on the mansion’s center block with wood shingles made from early-growth, heart Atlantic white cedar. The replacement shingle material closely resembles (and was a common period alternative to) the roof’s original bald cypress shingles. A mill will produce the custom replacement shingles to mimic the originals, removing all modern machine marks. Additionally, a blacksmith is creating custom-made gutter brackets and nails for the exterior.
Pair of hand-made, wrought-iron 18th- or early 19th-century scissors discovered in the floor cavity below flooring in the attic, October 2017.
Historic Annapolis and its team of professionals are using their historical research, on-site excavations, professional material analyses, and architectural design studies to calculate the cost of bringing this elegant treasure back to life. Funding the multi-million-dollar project is an ongoing capital campaign goal of the public-private collaboration involving the State of Maryland, the nonprofit Historic Annapolis, and private donors.
See the Preservation Project
The James Brice House is an architectural gem and a designated National Historic Landmark. The restored building will one day be open to the public for preservation research, educational programs, and exhibits to showcase the building’s extraordinary architecture and history.
When the weather warms up in the spring of 2019, Historic Annapolis will resume hosting hard-hat tours of the building, giving visitors a look at the house, its history, and the preservation craftmanship. It will be fascinating to see the progress as the research continues and the restoration begins—and besides, who among us doesn’t look fabulous in a hard hat?
Images courtesy of the Historic Annapolis and Willie Graham