The James Brice House: A Brief History
James Brice was a lawyer and planter, a local and county officeholder, a member of Maryland’s Executive Council for many years, and acting Governor in 1792. He and his wife, Juliana Jennings, had seven children. Thanks to Brice’s detailed account book, we know a lot about the construction of his five-part Georgian house, one of the largest and most elegant of Annapolis’s historic mansions. Work began on April 14, 1767 with the laying of a cornerstone marked “The Beginning.” Seven years, 326,000 bricks, and 90,800 cypress shingles later, the house was completed at a cost of just over £4,014 in colonial Maryland’s currency.
The house stayed in the Brice family until the 1870s, when it was purchased by the Martin family, and in 1911 it was bought by the proprietors of the nearby Carvel Hall Hotel. St. John’s College acquired the house in 1927 and converted it to faculty apartments. Stanley and Helen Wohl bought it in 1953 and restored it to single-family use. In 1979, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen purchased the house (later known as the International Masonry Institute) and began using it for office and meeting facilities. Recognized as one of Maryland’s most important historic resources, the State of Maryland purchased the James Brice House in 2014 and arranged for Historic Annapolis, Inc. (HA) to maintain and manage the National Historic Landmark property.
A Unique Maryland Story
Historians today commend James Brice for the extraordinary accounts of the work he kept during the construction of the Brice House, built with the skill and discerning eye of a laboring class and with the aid of a talented but enslaved work force. The extent of the documentation for the Brice House is paralleled by few other colonial American endeavors, perhaps matched only by the overly obsessive record keeping of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and by the meticulous writings of George Washington about his Mount Vernon estate. Although James Brice clearly had a hand in the design and construction oversight of his town dwelling, he appears more trusting of the tradesmen he selected to engage in his project than did his Virginia counterparts.
The building left by Brice and the handiwork of the workmen who erected it are extraordinarily intact. The house holds the potential to go beyond the traditional historic house museum to tell a greater story which will emphasize both the contribution of those who toiled to make the structure what is was in 1774, and highlight the skills of a new generation of builders, conservators and technicians who will restore the house to its former glory. Nowhere else in Maryland can a similar story be told in such depth and richness as here at the James Brice House, and HA plans to do just that.