By Dorothy Bowerfind
To commemorate the re-opening of our newly renovated McDowell Hall.
St. John’s College has an incredibly rich and complex history. It is the third oldest university in the nation, founded as King William’s School in 1696. This part of our heritage was absorbed in 1785 through the chartering of St. John’s College by the State of Maryland, with the acquisition of our new home: McDowell Hall.
In the beginning, McDowell was everything. Named for the first president of the College, John McDowell, the Hall opened for business in 1789 after the first two classrooms were completed. The rest of the construction swiftly followed suit. The first and second floors were used as classrooms, the third floor as dormitory space for tutors and students, the cupola room as the library, and the basement as the kitchen and dining area. Every necessary function of the College was fulfilled in McDowell Hall. But before it was our home, it was meant to be someone else’s. The State of Maryland hadn’t ordered the building for academia, they were re-purposing an abandoned project historically known as Bladen’s Folly.
In 1742 colonial Governor Thomas Bladen purchased four plots of land on the delicate slopes of what is now St. John’s College, Annapolis. The land had formerly been occupied by the second gunpowder house of the town, and it was deemed to be both beautiful and militarily advantageous. The top of the hill, surveying the land around it, marked the location of the future governor’s mansion of Maryland. Gov. Bladen had been allotted £4,000 (roughly over 1,000,000 USD today) for this project, £1,000 more than any governor before him.
The funding may have been British, but the design was executed by a Scottish architect, Simon Duff. The blueprints were elaborate: an opulent Georgian manor with wings on either side of a lavish ballroom, a colonnade of pillars, large glass windows, marble slabs for a palatial finish. Over the next couple of years, construction continued sporadically: lifting and joining the walls, laying scaffolding for a roof. During that time, Gov. Bladen realized he would require more funds to complete the mansion and applied for an extra £2,000. The Maryland Legislature refused his request, sparking a quarrel that would ultimately end with the delegates dismissing Bladen from office in 1746, just 4 years after he had begun his term. Consequently, the building efforts ceased. As the Annapolitan weather rained and beamed the unfinished bricks, cracks and weeds corrupted the roofless structure, earning it the epithet “Bladen’s Folly.”
The shell sat there unused through the Revolutionary War, an emblem of the ruined British aristocracy, until 1784. At that time St. John’s College was newly chartered by the state of Maryland, and Bladen’s Folly was given to the College. The Board of Visitors and Governors (BVG) fund-raised and petitioned the General Assembly to pay for the restoration and finishing of what would soon be McDowell Hall. Architect Joseph Clarke was hired to complete the plans for the third floor, roof, and the cupola. At the time, Mr. Clarke was also designing the dome to the State House down the street, leaving behind many similarities, like the octagonal cupolas.
After receiving a new name, and with an invigorated purpose, McDowell stood as the only building on the St. John’s campus until 1835, housing and educating many men, including Francis Scott Key, in naval and classical studies– it wasn’t until 1937, after losing its accreditation, that St. John’s adopted the Great Books program designed by Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr. McDowell has been in constant use as long as it has been able. Campus was overtaken completely during the Civil War by the Union army medical corps, utilizing McDowell as a headquarters and Humphrey’s Hall (1835) as a hospital. While it sustained no significant damage during the war, McDowell has faced its fair share of heat, catching fire twice to date (1901 and 1954). Both times it has been rebuilt to best represent the original model.
Today our first home has undergone renovations to create a more accessible learning environment. While the library has moved (twice), and the dorms and dining hall have earned their own spaces, McDowell remains a mainstay of the St. John’s campus, standing as a pillar of our history and our future. While we were sad to see it close down for a time, we are excited about what this little piece of occurring history might bring.