Every day we Annapolitans walk, drive by, work and play on hundreds of years of Western history. Our city is an old, old city and one that has played an important role in the life of our nation even before it was conceived. But how many of us know more about our rich heritage other than a few well-worn anecdotes? This Place Through Time is The Sound’s new weekly feature that tells the story of our ancient city through the words and pictures of Annapolis’ own historians, one chapter at a time.
If you’ve walked by 99 Main Street and wondered why the building is known as the St. Clair Wright Center, you could go inside (no entrance fee) and visit the small exhibit on the first floor. Or you could read on.
Two things are important to note about this particular famous Anne of Annapolis. First, although she was named “Anne,” as an adult she never used the name. She was “Saint” to her friends and “Mrs. Wright” to most everyone else. Second, were she alive today, she’d be in the forefront of the discussions and negotiations over the fate of the market house. Mrs. Wright surely regarded saving the market house in 1968-69 as one of the signature accomplishments of Annapolis’s historic preservation movement.
Although protecting the distinctive character of Annapolis was one of Mrs. Wright’s passions for the last forty years of her life, she was not an Annapolis native. St. Clair Wright was born in 1910 in Newport News, Virginia. As the daughter of U.S. naval officer Admiral Arthur St. Clair Smith and his wife Anna Salley, she spent her childhood partly in Annapolis (which her family made their permanent home) and partly in places as far-flung as France, Panama, China, and Japan. She attended the Peking American School while living in Beijing, attended Mary Baldwin College, and graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1932.
St. Clair Smith and Capt. Joseph Martin Pickett Wright married in Panama, where her father was stationed, in 1932. The Wrights “settled,” in so far as military families can, in Annapolis in the 1940s, and for good when Captain Wright retired from the Navy in 1953. By that time, Mrs. Wright had already embarked upon the path that made her a national leader in the historic preservation movement.
In April 1952, over two hundred people responded to an invitation from Dr. Richard Weigle, President of St. John’s College, and Arthur Ellington, Mayor of Annapolis, to attend a meeting at St. John’s to consider the future of their city. Specifically, they were to discuss formation of an “association to preserve the colonial traditions and structures of Annapolis.”
St. Clair Wright was a member of the first board of directors of the new organization, Historic Annapolis, Inc. Over nearly four decades, she served – always as a volunteer – as board member, secretary, vice-president, president, chairman of the board, and chairman emeritus.
Under Mrs. Wright’s leadership, Historic Annapolis played a major role in many preservation success stories. The list begins in 1955 with the dramatic move of Carroll the Barrister House from the corner of Main and Conduit Streets to its present location on the St. John’s College campus. Some years later, the Callahan House traveled in the opposite direction, from its second home on St. John Street to its present site on Conduit. The list of buildings saved from demolition includes not only the market, Barrister, and Callahan houses, but also 77 Main Street, 99 Main Street, Shiplap House, 43 Pinkney Street, and – most notably – the William Paca House. When the home of one of Maryland’s signers of the Declaration of Independence was threatened with sale and demolition in 1965, Historic Annapolis bought the house and the State of Maryland, at Mrs. Wright’s urging, acquired the land that was and is now its garden, although all trace of the garden had been obliterated long before 1965. Today, house and garden still stand as testimony to sensitive restoration based on exemplary research.
The organization’s vision extended beyond saving individual buildings to enhancing streetscapes and vistas, with undergrounding of unsightly utility wires a longstanding goal. Broader protections for the historic core of the city result from its designation as a Registered National Historic Landmark and passage of the Historic District Ordinance as well as measures to regulate building height and bulk and to prevent demolition by neglect.
Numerous awards testify to Mrs. Wright’s nationally recognized leadership. A sampling includes the Louise duPont Crowninshield Award, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1968, the Calvert Award from the Maryland Historical Trust in 1975, the Garden Club of America Historic Preservation Medal in 1983, and an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Public Service from the University of Maryland in 1985. St. Clair Wright was elected to the Maryland Woman’s Hall of Fame in 2009.
To paraphrase the tribute to someone whose work St. Clair Wright surely admired, “Reader, if you seek [her] memorial – look around you.”
About the author:
Jean Russo is a native New Yorker who has lived in Maryland for many years. She has a Ph.D. in colonial history from The Johns Hopkins University, works part time for the Maryland State Archives and Historic Annapolis Foundation, and does volunteer and freelance work for most of the historical entities in town and in the Four Rivers Heritage Area. She is co-editor of Colonial Chesapeake Society and The Diary of William Faris . . . An Annapolis Silversmith. Ms. Russo is a founding member of the Annapolis History Consortium.
The Annapolis History Consortium is an informal organization of professional and amateur historians who meet about ten times a year to discuss issues, places, and events pertaining to area history. The more than one hundred members of the Consortium’s online group discuss issues and answer questions online.