January 11, 2018 – Lewis Contractors’ craftsmen and their subcontractors are stepping back in time–nearly three centuries –as restoration work for the James Brice House in Annapolis continues. Thanks to Brice’s original, detailed account book from the original construction, much is known about the construction of this five-part Georgian-style manor—one of the largest and most elegant of Annapolis’s historic mansions. Because of Brice’s meticulous documentation, the restoration work is being directed not only by the project team assembled by Historic Annapolis; but, in many ways, by James Brice himself.
As one of the most important remaining Colonial homes in America, documentation of the home’s original construction is rivaled only by that of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. 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 in 1774 at a cost of just over £4,014 in colonial Maryland’s currency—a veritable fortune by today’s standard.
James Brice’s home 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 craft the original structure from 1767 to 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.
In a most unusual construction sequence, Lewis is removing “the new” and replacing it with “the old”. Historic materials—or at least those which have been reproduced using historic techniques are used wherever possible. Historic lumber salvaged from other projects is being installed and there are plans to use hand-wrought nails, historically accurate hand-made bricks and period tiles.
Master craftsmen in historic restoration are working side by side with other members of the team as this multi-year project begins. Recently, an original masonry barrel vault arch was discovered when restoring the basement bulkhead ahead of the removal of a contemporary building addition. Rubble infill beneath the arch was carefully removed by hand and the 16-18” wide colonial lintels are now being restored using 18th century materials. Perhaps most interesting to observers of the process would be the blend of antique or vintage chisels, adz and axes supplemented by contemporary electrically powered saws which are being employed by the craftsmen.
Elements which will be restored during later phases of the project are being protected from day to day construction activities. The main staircase in the center block is now completely encased by what appears to be a plywood staircase replete with knee wall. That staircase is in fact a superstructure which sits above and outside the original materials and is in no way attached to or even touching the historic stairs and rail beneath. Once the superstructure is removed, restoration of the staircase can proceed without it having been damaged.
Lewis Contractors will be publishing quarterly updates of the project. Additional information may be obtained by visiting http://www.annapolis.org/contact/james-brice-house.