It would be easy to make this house a home. It’s huge, it’s gorgeous, it has stunning curb appeal, and it’s furnished with beautiful artwork and furniture. I know, you’d love to live in a house like this. Who wouldn’t? Maybe you can, but there’s just one little snag. This house isn’t available. Well, actually, it is available, but only once every four years. And to live here you’d have to be elected Governor of the State of Maryland. If you’re still interested, we can take a look at the Government House. Let’s step inside.
The Official Governor’s Residence
Government House in Annapolis has been the official residence of the Governors of Maryland for 150 years. Governor Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr. and his family are the home’s current residents.
Government House stands prominently in a “fish-bowl” location, encircled by public spaces and government institutions. Centrally located between State Circle and Church Circle, and edged by Lawyer’s Mall, the mansion and its grounds lie in the heart of historic Annapolis.
The home’s elegant public rooms are a venue for state events and receptions at which dignitaries and official guests are received and entertained. The comfortable private quarters in other parts of the house are reserved for the Governor and his family.
The State rooms that are frequently open to the public are the center Entrance Hall, the Reception Room, the Victorian Parlor, the Conservatory, the Drawing Room, and the Dining Room. These rooms include furnishings, paintings, and other treasures that reflect Maryland’s rich history and enhance the use of the residence as a political and social venue for the Maryland government.
When the house was built in 1869, it was constructed in the fashion of the period as a Victorian mansion with a mansard roof. In 1935, Government House was dramatically converted from the Victorian style to its present Georgian-era country house appearance.
The art displayed in Government House includes works from the State-owned Annapolis Collection and the Peabody Art Collection. The paintings include a portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale.
On display in the Entrance Hall are six carved panels from the magnificent walnut entry doors that once graced the mansion during the Victorian period. Intricately carved with the Maryland coat of arms and other symbols of Maryland industry and agriculture, these beautiful panels are among the few remaining artifacts of the home’s original Victorian decor. The panels were lost for many years after the 1935 renovation until four of them were located and restored in the 1970s. The final two panels were only recently found at public auction and returned to the house.
Before Government House, the Governors Resided Elsewhere
The Governor’s residence wasn’t always in this location. Before 1869, the provincial and State Governors of Maryland had to find other homes around Annapolis. The concept of a Maryland Governor’s residence first arose in 1733, long before the Revolutionary War, when legislators authorized funds for the purchase of land and construction of an official residence for the provincial Governor.
A few years later in 1742, provincial Governor Thomas Bladen used those government funds to purchase a homesite that is a few blocks from the location of today’s Government House. As it turned out, Bladen’s site is at the center of today’s St. John’s College campus, a four-acre plot on a small rise overlooking Dorsey Creek (now College Creek). Governor Bladen began construction of a fine home, but a dispute between Governor Bladen and the House of Delegates led to a long pause in its construction. Can you imagine that? Even back then there were disputes between the Executive and Legislative branches.
Known as Bladen’s Folly, the building stood unfinished without a roof, and the structure and surrounding site were abandoned in ruined disarray for nearly fifty years. Many a traveler to Annapolis visited and reported on Bladen’s Folly, including Thomas Jefferson, whose penchant for fine architecture prompted him to write that Annapolis had “no publick buildings worth mentioning except a governor’s house, the hull of which after being nearly finished, they have suffered to go to ruin.”
After the Revolutionary War, St. John’s College acquired and completed the Bladen’s Folly ruins. The structure that once might have become the Governor’s residence stands today on the St. John’s College campus as the imposing McDowell Hall.
In the meantime, in 1753, Governor Horatio Sharpe looked around and leased as his official residence the Edmund Jennings House, a grand home once located where Dahlgren Hall stands today on land that is now part of the Naval Academy. In 1769, that same residence was purchased by Governor Robert Eden, Maryland’s last provincial governor before the American Revolution. After Eden’s hasty departure for England and later the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the State confiscated the Jennings House and made it the official Maryland Governor’s residence.
The Jennings House was occupied by Maryland colonial and State governors for more than a century, from 1753 to 1869, when it was sold by the State to the Naval Academy. The Jennings House was incorporated into the Academy’s post-Civil War expansion before it was finally demolished in 1901 to make way for new plans for the Naval Academy Yard. The demolition was a great loss to Maryland and Annapolis history.
In 1868, the State finally purchased the existing site of Government House on State Circle, tore down a few houses, and by January 1869 the Victorian mansion’s first occupants, Governor Oden Bowie and his family, moved in. A long line of Governors has lived here over the 150 years since that time.
The Gardens Include a Victorian Fountain
A stately wrought iron fence encloses the beautifully landscaped grounds of Government House, creating an oasis of privacy in this bustling location. On the Church Circle side, the garden is graced by an elegant Victorian-style fountain, a pretty sight and soothing presence for anyone passing on the sidewalk.
The ornate Victorian fountain’s metal design is cast with images representing Maryland’s bounty and wildlife, including corn, crabs, tobacco, terrapins, and the State bird, the Baltimore Oriole. Many of us remember the installation of the fountain in 1990, back in the days when William Donald Schaefer was Governor. Since then, the landscaping has matured, and the large fountain has settled into its lovely surroundings.
Take a Tour and Learn More
Public tours take guests through the public rooms to learn about the architecture, artwork and furnishings on display.
Tours of the public rooms are held by prior arrangement on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 am to noon. School groups are welcome. There is also an annual public holiday open house, usually scheduled for one Saturday in early December. (To schedule a tour, call (410) 974-3531 or write to Government House, State Circle, Annapolis MD 21401).
More detail about the history of Government House can be found in a 2018 book entitled, “A Dwelling-House and Other Conveniences…” A History of Maryland’s Government House”, authored by Maryland State Archives staff Elaine Bachmann and Mimi Calver. Written to mark the 150th anniversary of Government House, the book is available at the Maryland State Archives at 350 Rowe Boulevard in Annapolis. Proceeds from book sales benefit The Foundation for the Preservation of Government House, Inc. To celebrate the anniversary, Governor and Mrs. Hogan hosted a festive public reception at Government House in May 2018, complete with a cake made to look like a miniature version of the original Victorian-style Government House.
Today, the mansion is administered by the Government House Trust, established by the Maryland legislature in 1980. The Trust is charged with the care, preservation, design, furnishing, and interpretation of the seven State rooms of Government House and with conserving the art and decorative objects on display.
One more thing—If you do take a tour, and you like the feel of the place, maybe next time you could throw your hat in the ring for Governor!
For more information, visit the Maryland State Archives online.
Images courtesy of Ann Powell, the Maryland State Archives, and Visit Annapolis.org