In Annapolis, Md., the Past Is Always at Hand
IF you have read <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="133160;332532">“Roots”</object.title> by Alex Haley, you have already been introduced to Annapolis, the capital of Maryland and briefly, in 1783 and 1784, the capital of the United States. It is where a battered and enslaved African teenager named Kunta Kinte arrived in America and where he was sold at auction to a planter in Virginia. Statues at the harbor today depict Mr. Haley, who traced his ancestry to Kunta Kinte, reading to three children.
From the shame of the slave trade to the elegance of Washington’s resignation as commander-in-chief, delivered in what is still the Maryland State House, the past is always at hand in Annapolis. Look beyond the chic merchandise in downtown shop windows to the red-brick buildings themselves, many of them dating to the Colonial era. All of downtown is a lively National Historic District where tourists and townspeople mingle with midshipmen, often in uniform, from the United States Naval Academy and with Johnnies — students at St. John’s College.
Alleys and oddly angled streets are crammed with small row houses and slivers of gardens. Cafes and restaurants offer outdoor tables in season. Mansions inhabited by Maryland’s political elite at the dawn of the nation are open to visitors. Segway riders roll en masse for tours. Yachtsmen proudly parade their boats on a finger of water, called Ego Alley, that ends at City Dock in the heart of downtown.
Annapolis, which is often choked by automobile traffic, is perhaps best reached by water. Sail or motor from the Chesapeake Bay, and you are likely to see the tops of the hilltop State House and the Naval Academy Chapel before the rest of the town is visible. Ric Dahlgren, the harbor master, said that each year 8,000 to 10,000 boats visit Annapolis, which is often called the sailing capital of the country.
Drivers (it is about 40 minutes from both Washington and Baltimore) can head to the waterfront, too, to begin a tour of the city at City Dock, a great spot for walking and browsing. Park at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and take a free shuttle to the City Dock area. Many visitors barely go beyond the shops and restaurants near Ego Alley.
Pop into Re-Sails (42 Randall Street, 410-263-4982), which sells a variety of goods, including drawstring backpacks for $49 and $54, made of recycled sails. Next door, Mixed Greens (410-216-9830) offers eco-friendly items, including bowls shaped from old vinyl records, sold for $28.
Walk another block on Randall Street and you can experience another Annapolis. You are at Gate 1 of the Naval Academy. Your driver’s license will get you onto the campus, and signs will direct you to the waterfront visitors’ center where you can pick up a map for a self-guided walking tour or pay for a thorough guided tour. Visitors are allowed to wander the grounds, but you should first look around the visitors’ center, where Freedom 7, the space capsule that made Alan Shepard the first American in space, is on display along with exhibits explaining the lives of midshipmen, as the academy’s students are called. (The Naval Academy Museum, which houses other exhibits and naval artifacts, is closed for renovation until 2009.)
Walk out onto the campus, which has the manicured look and feel of an elite private college, and you’re surrounded by the largest collection of Beaux Arts-style buildings in the country. First stop might be Lejeune Hall, the physical education building, where a balcony walkway lets you watch the activity at an indoor Olympic-size pool and perhaps see classes in hand-to-hand combat. (In the summer, when few midshipmen are on campus, you may see youngsters from all over the country who come for sports camps.) You can also see two Heisman Trophies — won by Joseph Bellino in 1960 and Roger Staubach in 1963 — as well as the Eastman Award that the basketball star David Robinson won in 1987.
Other notable buildings include Bancroft Hall, the 1.4-million-square-foot dormitory where all 4,400 midshipmen live. You’re not allowed in its 4.8 miles of corridors, but you can enter the lobby, which has a rotunda resembling that of a state capitol and a case honoring three former residents: Jimmy Carter (class of 1946), H. Ross Perot (1953) and John McCain (1958). Upstairs is Memorial Hall, a large ceremonial room that was the setting for President Bush’s Mideast conference last fall. The courtyard in front of Bancroft Hall is the setting each weekday during the academic year for noon formations; a drum and bugle corps plays as midshipmen assemble at 12:05 prior to lunch. Many visitors time their visits to the academy so that they can watch.
In the Naval Academy Chapel, a cathedral-like 1908 building very popular for weddings, John Paul Jones is buried in a crypt resembling Napoleon’s tomb in Paris. Also of note is the Jewish Chapel, made of stone from Israel and with a wall designed to resemble the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It is part of the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center, which has exhibits on Jews in the Navy. (Uriah Levy, 1792-1862, was the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy and is famous for refusing to flog his sailors.)
Local residents and visitors are welcome to attend Catholic (9 a.m.) and Protestant (11 a.m.) services in the Naval Academy Chapel on Sundays as well as Jewish services on Fridays (7:30 p.m.) at the Levy Center.
There is little flogging-related history across King George Street at St. John’s College, a private secular school that plays Athens to the Naval Academy’s Sparta. The much smaller (500 undergraduates and 100 graduate students) St. John’s was chartered in 1784 but dates its origins to 1696, either year making it much older than the Naval Academy, which was founded in 1845. There is military history, too: the Army’s first R.O.T.C. was formed there in 1917. St. John’s, which has another campus in Santa Fe, N.M., is best known today for its rigorous great-books curriculum. There are no majors, no departments, no written exams and few lectures. Instead, students are guided by teachers called tutors, not professors, as they read and discuss original texts — about 130 works of Western civilization by authors as diverse as Plato, Jane Austen and Isaac Newton.
The focal point of the St. John’s campus is the domed McDowell Hall, which dates to 1742 and which Thomas Jefferson described in 1766 as the only public building “worth mentioning” in town. The Marquis de Lafayette was the guest of honor at a ball in its Great Hall in 1824; the same room is used today for student waltz parties.
Most of the St. John’s buildings are red brick and date to the 18th or 19th centuries, like most of downtown Annapolis. An exception is Mellon Hall, a 1958 Richard Neutra Modernist design in steel, concrete and glass, where visitors can pick up a printed guide for a walking tour of the campus (Communications Office, 124 Mellon Hall, 410-626-2539). Everywhere on campus you will see wooden chairs with rush seats; they are handmade in North Carolina and are the school’s only tradition that’s for sale: $399, including shipping, at the campus bookstore.
Another tradition is the annual croquet match with Navy. It’s held on the St. John’s lawn every April; so far, St. John’s has won 21 of the 26 matches, including the 2008 match, which drew more than 2,000 spectators.
Take a short walk on North Street to State Circle to see the stately brick buildings that ring the circle and, inside it, the Maryland State House, built in 1772, the oldest state capitol still in legislative use and the only one to have served as a United States capitol. You may already be familiar with its image on the Maryland quarter. Temporarily closed for renovations, it is expected to reopen in January in time for the state legislative session.
Go beyond State Circle to Church Circle and turn down Franklin Street to visit the Banneker-Douglass Museum, which documents the history of African-Americans in Maryland and is named for two Marylanders, Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery and became an abolitionist leader, and the astronomer and mathematician Benjamin Banneker. Among exhibits on Marylanders including Douglass, Banneker, Harriet Tubman and Thurgood Marshall is a reproduction of a Sept. 29, 1767, newspaper notice about the arrival of a ship with a load of African slaves, one of whom Alex Haley identified as Kunta Kinte.
A free shuttle runs 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends between the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, at Taylor Avenue at Rowe Boulevard, and downtown points including the shopping area near City Dock. Parking at the stadium is $5 a day.
Along Ego Alley, docking is $6 an hour for the first three hours for boats of less than 50 feet; $12 for longer boats. A flat $2 a foot lets you linger until noon of the next day.
Segway of Annapolis (131 Prince George Street, 410-280-1577, www.annpolissegwaytours.com) charges $45 for a one-hour tour, $65 for a two-hour tour. Segway training takes about 10 minutes.
Visitors can enter the Naval Academy at Gate 1 (Randall and King George Streets) daily from 9 a.m. to dusk. The Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily March through December and until 4 p.m. in January and February. Guided tours ($8.50) last an hour and 15 minutes. At the Drydock cafeteria in Dahlgren Hall, a hamburger and fries are $6.
The grounds of St. John’s College are always open. The bookstore, in Humphreys Hall, is open 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays during the academic year; 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays in the summer. At the coffee shop in McDowell Hall, a hamburger with potato chips is $2.50.
The Banneker-Douglass Museum (84 Franklin Street; 410-216-6180; www.bdmuseum.com) is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. Admission is free.