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​"Forging" Ahead at the James Brice House

Willie Graham, Consulting Architectural Historian

November 30, 2018

Master blacksmith Kevin Clancy, working out of his one-man shop in Elsersburg, Maryland, is smithing nails and gutter hardware in preparation for Historic Annapolis’ current re-roofing effort at the James Brice House. Clancy has supplied hardware to some of the most prominent restorations and reconstructions in the mid-Atlantic over the past 18 years, including places like George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier, Historic St. Mary’s City, and the early settlement at Jamestown. Lewis Construction contracted with Clancy to provide the ironwork for this phase of the restoration.

Clancy’s work entails forging iron to match the peculiar traits of the ironwork at the Brice House. HA’s exacting restoration calls for hand-forged, wrought-iron nails to use in the elements of the cornice and the bargeboards that carpenters will replace later this winter. Of note are the heads of the finish nails that Brice purchased during his original construction. These are a form of a “clasp” nail, that usually required two extra hammer blows of a common nail to form a T shape profile and used for finish work. However, Brice’s clasp nails were struck an additional two times, creating a neatly-formed square head. In HA’s bid to restore the house precisely as Brice built it, Clancy is recreating the missing nails to match these strange nail forms.

Other blacksmithing during this phase calls for replication of wrought-iron brackets to carry lead-coated copper gutters and downspouts that will mimic the type of work found on early houses of the region. Using surviving brackets as a model for his work from a house in Westmorland County, Virginia, Clancy will forge replacements for the Brice hangers that from the ground appear identical. However, Bill Neudorfer, the project architect, designed hidden modifications to the brackets that allow for adjustments to create a steady fall in the gutters along their lengths. As with the nails, Clancy will use wrought iron for all exterior ironwork not only to replicate the material that Brice purchased in the eighteenth century, but also to minimize the corrosion common to mild steel that blacksmiths today generally prefer.



Face to Face in the Brice House Cellar

John E. Kille, Ph.D., Archaeologist, Lost Towns Project

September 28, 2018

After cleaning the dirt from the crevices, it was apparent that the broken ceramic sherd just troweled from the ground had distinctive facial features, including deep set eyes and two fangs protruding from its lower jaw.   

Actual sherd recently discovered at Brice House

Archaeologists with the Lost Towns Project recently recovered this very intriguing artifact while excavating underneath the brick floor in the cellar area of the circa 1767 James Brice House on East Street in Annapolis.  The piece was found among debris strewn over an underground pit feature that is being documented as part of a carefully planned, multi-year restoration of this extraordinary Georgian brick mansion.

Made of white salt glazed stoneware, the face mask belonged to the footed base of an expensive and fashionable mid-18th century lidded bowl or tureen.  Shawn Sharpe on our team found two extant vessels with this decorative element in “White Salt Glazed Stoneware of the British Isles” coauthored by our colleague and friend Diana Edwards.  One example resides in a private collection and the other at the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.



This type of vessel is thought to have been produced by Humphrey Palmer at his pottery works in Hanley, England, between 1750-1765, just prior to when the Brice House was built.  Two very similar face mask fragments were excavated at the Palmer Factory and reside in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke on Trent.  We hope to learn more about the circumstances that led to this highly unusual piece of pottery being deposited under the floor of the cellar.   It undoubtedly has a very interesting story to tell. 



Exploring the Brice House Paint Evidence

Susan L. Buck, Ph.D., Conservator and Paint Analyst

July 30, 2018

When I began the exploration and analysis of the paint evidence remaining on the interior and exterior of the Brice House in the summer of 2016 it seemed like a huge and daunting project. Identifying and documenting the original paints was only the starting point, more importantly, I needed to use the paint stratigraphies as an archaeological tool for dating alterations and additions. This entailed comparing the paint histories in tiny magnified cross-section samples.

Despite several major restorations, the Brice House paint samples are surprisingly intact. The samples from the exterior woodwork of the house will help us reconstruct the original palette of the house, as well as document the color changes over time. In the exterior paint sample below from the window trim, the original deep red paint is at the bottom of the cross-section along with distinct films of grit and soot trapped between each paint layer. This deep red paint became quite fragmentary and dirty before it was covered over with a dark cream color in the second generation and varying degrees of lighter cream colors and whites in the generations that followed. 

Sample S-10, second-floor west window on the south elevation        

On the interior the paints are less compromised by weathering, but in many areas they were damaged by previous paint stripping efforts. But the most protected areas, like the corners of raised panels and the top edges of doors and architraves, contain thick accumulations of paints dating from approximately 1774 to the present.  An intact paint chronology was found on the woodwork in the second-floor northwest chamber where the woodwork was originally painted with a coarse, oil-bound, orange paint!  This orange paint is at the bottom of the cross-section sample shown below. The woodwork was repainted thirteen more times, and its current salmon-colored paint (at the top) may have been intended to replicate a faded version of the original orange.

Sample 214-4, top of a door architrave in the original northwest chamber

As this project progresses, I will continue to work closely with the other Brice House team members to put the findings into context and to make decisions about replications. One of the best aspects of a project like this for me is that there is always more to learn about the surviving historic paint and varnish evidence, and the paint chronologies continue to reveal information about the Brice House that cannot be gleaned from documents or other physical evidence.



Stair Discoveries

Matt Webster, Consulting Building Conservator

May 10, 2018


The current 20th century stair. The door at the top leads into the house.As work on the Brice House progresses, we continue to find new evidence that tells us what it looked like in the past. One of the areas we are looking at is the west hyphen, the connector between the house and the coach house. The newest infromation is from the original stair that connected the house and hypen. A modern 20th century stair is currently in the location, but as the modern material is carefully removed, the information for the 18th century stair was revealed. When modern plaster was removed from the walls, the evidence for the 18th century first floor ceiling and and second floor framing were found. We could also see where the first floor ceiling sloped up following the pitch of the 18th century stair. At the top of the modern stair, staining from the 18th century post that supported the upper deck can be seen on the wall. This not only showed us the construction methods, but also gave dimensions for the 18th century landing, which is smaller than the current stair landing. 


The etched line, shown by the red arrow, was placed by 18th century workers laying out the stair.Under the modern stair, we found evidence for the original floor level, which is lower than the current floor. One of the most interesting things was a line etched into the brick wall at an angle. It seems that as the 18th century workers were figuring out how the stair would fit into this area, they etched this line to figure out the angle/pitch of the stair.

Through these discoveries we begin to understand what the stair looked like and how it was constructed, as well as how the house functioned. We will use all of this information to design and rebuild the 18th century stair.

The house continues to reveal its secrets and amazes us. Continue to follow the blog to see next discovery!



 

Cellar Secrets

Willie Graham, Consulting Architectural Historian

March 20, 2018

Over the last three months, the cellar of the James Brice House has revealed new secrets brought to light by historians, archaeologists, and our master mason. Recent investigations lead by architectural historian Willie Graham suggest that the cellar underwent a renovation as a laundry when Carvel Hall Hotel purchased the house in the 1910s. A modern coat of whitewash covers the walls and ceilings, but not so completely as to mask graffiti left by the workmen, including carvings on the stone walls and writings on the woodwork. Startling inscriptions peer through the whitewash, which covers vast early writings made in red pencil. In time, conservators will remove the modern finish. The text will hopefully divulge something about how the cellars were first used.

 

Initial excavation work by The Lost Towns Project targeted the floor near an opening created in 1912 whose jambs are made from reused boards probably cut from an original "dresser" (the period name for kitchen counters). Dressers rarely survive, and thus this is a great find. Carefully removing the brick floor paving, Lost Towns is documenting the fragmented remains of the original covering, which the team plans to recreate.

 

Meanwhile, master mason Raymond Cannetti's team, who restored the original bulkhead opening, discovered a previously unknown doorway at the bottom of its steps. Mortises in the stonewalls underneath a vault they repaired revealed to an astonishingly precise degree what that doorway looked like and indicates the treatment of the bulkhead over it. The masons recreated that doorway and hope soon to build the bulkhead foundations discovered by the archaeologists.

 

 

The Brice House Ledger

Sarah Thomas, Consulting Historian, James Brice House Restoration

January 12, 2018

James Brice kept an account book during the years (1767-1774) that he built the grand Georgian mansion that stands at the corner of Prince George and East Streets. This account book that covers the years 1767 to 1801, now in the collection of the Maryland State Archives, is the most detailed and wide-ranging account of a house building in the latter half of the eighteenth-century. To give you a sense of its breadth and level of detail, the transcription of this account book is nearly 130 typed pages! His accounts included information about laborers who dug foundations and laid bricks, did stone work, made and carted bricks, plastered the house’s interior, and built garden walls. The book provides an unparalleled glimpse at construction methods that most architectural historians only wish they had access to during a house restoration project. 

In addition to allowing us to understand who built the house and outbuildings, the book also outlines how long the construction processes took and how much Brice paid each worker. Another useful feature of Brice’s ledger is the sheer amount of objects that we can find on its pages. For example, Brice orders “44 weights for windows…” for over 6 pounds, bolts for shutters, a “spring bolt for Hall,” hooks, nails, screws, and “1/2 doz. mortice” locks. He even makes a notation for “boring holes thru brick walls 3 places 50/” to install a system of bells and cranks in three rooms. He orders “barrs from cellar windows,” supplies for “plaister of paris”, “253 Bushels Lime,” and tools for putting up stucco, including “wash brushes” and a “lathing hammer.”

As the restoration of the James Brice House continues, we will delve deeper into Brice’s construction accounts, as well as all documentary and photographic records of the house’s over two-hundred fifty-year history and share some of our findings on this blog.