Behind the Scenes: The James Brice House
By Catherine Cyr, ’22
After a full year of virtual learning and pandemic restrictions, the WPAMC fellows were ecstatic to get on the road and travel for our first field study trip – the Southern Trip! Our jam-packed itinerary promised to bring us to some of the best historic and cultural heritage sites throughout the mid-Atlantic region, many of which the fellows had never visited before. I especially looked forward to our day in Annapolis, a city full of rich and layered history, knowing that we would have the chance to go behind the scenes to examine the architecture and interiors of various historic buildings.
One of the highlights of our visit to Annapolis was our tour of the James Brice House. Built between 1767–1774, the Brice House is one of the largest and most notable historic properties in the city. The five-part, double-pile brick Georgian home towers over nearby properties with attached wings flanking either side. The house is well-known for its stunning and intricate interiors in addition to its use of the “Annapolis Plan”: the house’s center passage is stopped by two rear rooms rather than continuing straight to the back of the building.1
As a lawyer, politician, and plantation owner, Brice relied on the labor and craftsmanship of enslaved, indentured, and free individuals to build and decorate the structure. Recent research has brought to light the prominence of enslaved and freed labor in the construction of the house—much of which is documented in Brice’s account book.2 Scholars have been working to bring the names of craftsmen to the surface to acknowledge their contributions and improve the interpretation of the house.
Today, the Brice House is undergoing extensive restoration to return the structure to its 1774 appearance. The fellows were treated to a special tour inside the house, which is currently closed to visitors, by Historic Annapolis. Donning hardhats, we stepped inside to explore multiple levels of the building and to view the ongoing work.
We first entered one of the two attached wings where the scope of the restoration work was immediately evident. Most of the wing’s interior has been stripped, revealing the original fabric and framework. We stepped down into the basement of the structure to see the cornerstone marked “The Beginning,” which was placed in the foundation when construction began in 1767, as well as the newly placed “Renewal” stone marking the restoration efforts by Historic Annapolis. We then traveled to the second story of the wing where we discussed the structure’s ties to slavery. It was in this space, along with the third story of the main block, that enslaved individuals slept. We discussed the living conditions of the enslaved and the work they completed both on and off the property. Seeing these spaces and learning how they will be interpreted when the house reopens to the public was an important reminder of the suffering and pain deeply tied to the Brice House and many other grand, Colonial-era homes.
Later, we ventured into the main block of the house to view some of the active restoration work. Many of the first floor rooms are decorated with incredible plasterwork and woodwork that has deteriorated over the years. A talented team of craftspeople and historians are painstakingly restoring these features throughout the house. We watched as some of the team members cleaned plaster molding on scaffolding and we even handled some of the molds others had created to replace missing pieces. We learned about the paint analysis that is being conducted in many of the rooms in order to return each to its original colorways. The large drawing room was a favorite among many in the group, thanks to its elaborate fireplace surround and unusual paneling. To finish our tour, we visited the second and third stories of the main block before returning our hardhats and heading off to lunch on the waterfront.
I know that many of the fellows, myself included, are excited to continue to follow the Brice House restoration. I am already planning a trip back to see the finished results when the house reopens in a few years. If you would like to learn more about the project, you can visit the Historic Annapolis website and follow their blog for updates.
- Catherine C. Lavoie, “James Brice House (Annapolis, Maryland),” SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), https://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/MD-01-003-0097. ↩
- For more information, see “The Contributions of Enslaved Artisans in Annapolis and Charleston: New Research and Resources” by Bethany J. McGlyn and Tiffany Momon, PhD, https://decorativeartstrust.org/enslaved-artisans/. ↩