By Rachel Lovett, Curator & Assistant Director
The Front Door
The front door of Hammond-Harwood House makes an immediate impression. Often called the ‘most beautiful doorway in America (fig 1), this passage is all hand-carved wood and took great skill to execute. The trained eye can pick out several elements of classical design inspired by Ancient Greece and Rome. According to architectural historian Calder Loth, once you learn the language of classical architecture you are able to read the building.
The British-born architect of the Hammond-Harwood House, William Buckland, was well versed in classical design, which was widely popular in England in the 18th century. Designing the house in 1774 for Matthias Hammond, Buckland poured over his fourteen books of architecture, one of the most impressive collections in the colonies. Buckland was a fan of 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, who built country villas in the Veneto, or mainland of Venice, using classical styles. It is from his work we get the style known as Palladian. Buckland did not own a copy of Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture; however, his employer Edward Lloyd did, and it was from this borrowed book that Buckland drew inspiration. He based the house on Palladio’s Villa Pisani at Montagna (fig 2), naturally incorporating his own ideas into the property, and adapting it for the climate and tastes of 18th century Annapolis. The idea of adjusting a country villa into an urban setting is an interesting one, and one that appealed to the young ambitious owner, Matthias Hammond, as it referenced his wealth and used classical architecture to exhibit his fine taste.
The front doorway of the house is one of Buckland’s premier achievements. Self-described as an architect, Buckland was trained as a joiner in London before emigrating to Virginia where he worked on a variety of buildings including elegant country estates modeled on classical design.
For the front door of Hammond-Harwood House he combined elements from at least two different books including Abraham Swan’s British Architect (fig 3) and James Gibbs’ A Book of Architecture. The columns enclose an arched opening, decorated with an egg and dart motif, which represented a shield and spear in Ancient Greece.
In the spandrels we can see draped garlands of roses. The columns are topped by a pulvinated frieze (a frieze with a convex profile) decorated with laurel leaves. Some visitors sometimes mistake these for tobacco leaves but this pattern of overlapping laurel leaves is found everywhere in British architecture of the period and could not have represented anything else.
Laurel leaves come from Greek culture. In Ancient Greek mythology the god Apollo is depicted wearing a laurel crown in honor of his unrequited love Daphne, which is Greek for Laurel. Laurel leaves historically have been given to victors of competitions.
The columns on the front door are of the Ionic order (fig 4B), which comes from Ancient Greece. They are Scamozzi ionic (fig 4A)—in that style capitals have angled volutes, which curve under, often with a central floral motif, and are named after Renaissance architect Vincenzo Scamozzi (1522-1616). The design was used heavily in 18th century by architects James Gibbs, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and Sir Christopher Wren, who all worked in our architect’s hometown of Oxford, England. Buckland he would have seen this design in his youth. Ionic capitals symbolize wisdom, and were in use as early as the mid-6th century BC. Many American buildings in the Federal era include ionic capitals.
Author and architectural historian Alan Greenberg addresses the Hammond-Harwood House door in his publication Architecture of Democracy. He asserts that in ancient Greece and Rome the pediment in a doorway symbolized the dwelling of a god. For example, the Athenian Acropolis (fig 5) was the home of Athena the goddess of Wisdom; it had Doric columns. The Greeks used columns as a metaphor for the citizens of Athens. European kings used columns similarly on the entrances to royal palaces. Historically temples and palaces were both spaces that had constant visitors.
In American domestic architecture things were very different. The Hammond-Harwood House front door has an arch. The American arch denotes the transition between the municipal sidewalk and the private sphere of a citizen’s dwelling. Americans modified architectural details to reflect ideas of their new democracy.
The door itself is made of locally harvested southern pine (fig 6), which grows in red clay soil found in the Mid-Atlantic. This malleable wood was easy to carve. It also grew in abundance and was easy to secure for building projects. The craftsman could have been a variety of carvers on Buckland’s crew, which included, indentured craftsmen, convicts and an enslaved craftsman named Oxford.
The steps in the front of the house and on the garden façade are both 20th century additions. It is likely the original steps would have been wooden like those at the Chase-Lloyd House across the street, which Buckland also worked on.
Two sketches and a detail within a painting exist of the Hammond-Harwood House exterior from the 18th century. One of the sketches is from Thomas Jefferson (fig 7), who sketched the house in 1783. Jefferson instantly recognized the influence of classical design. He was very intrigued by the semi-octagonal bays and then incorporated circular design into his homes Monticello, Poplar Forest, and later the University of Virginia’s rotunda building. The other sketch (fig 8) is from the journal of Annapolis raised artist Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Peale includes not only the exterior but the unusual interior layout, which means he was inside the Hammond-Harwood House.
Peale is also responsible for a detail of the house within a painting. He began a portrait of our architect William Buckland (fig 9) in 1774 before Buckland’s untimely death. Thirteen years later Peale was back in Annapolis on a commission for Buckland’s daughter and her family. As a present he completed the portrait and included a sketch of Buckland’s design for Hammond-Harwood House. A copy of this portrait now resides in the historic dining room.
In 2016 the front door was badly in need of repair and repainting. Dr. Susan Buck, a leading expert in the field, undertook paint analysis for the exterior trim of the mansion (fig 10). The results are quite interesting. After peeling back 24 layers of paint, she discovered that the trim was a cream color, similar to the color of the mortar. There was compelling evidence that the front door was grain painted to look like expensive mahogany, a very popular wood of the 18th century. Grain painting was very common for interior doors in this period, but less common for exterior ones. The southern pine door’s 24 generations of paint included dark colors and recently several generations of white, a color which did not exist at the time the house was built.
Once we found out that the original front door had been faux grained, we decided to take action and find someone appropriate to do the work.
Back in the 18th century, it was just a matter of choice whether someone wanted the actual mahogany or the faux graining. The cost would have been about the same.
Betsy Greene (fig 11), an artisan from Baltimore, worked with me to find an appropriate pattern. I chose a version of interior doors from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. As he had seen the house in 1783, one could think he may have even been inspired to paint his doors in a similar pattern.
Betsy first painted a base coat of a yellow underneath and then carefully applied several layers of different colored paint to produce the faux graining. The result is a rich, convincing depiction of actual mahogany.
The front door has six safety features, including a rim lock (fig 12) or box lock which is an exterior panel for the lock. This type of lock was cast in foundries by whitesmiths, or metal workers. Before 1850 many locks were imported directly from England. After 1850 these box locks were replaced with mortise locks, tubular locks, and cylindrical locks. There is also a night latch, two bolts, and a bar. Our lock repairer believes the locks in the interior mansion block are English and original, and the ones in the hyphens are later 19th century additions.
Do you notice anything unusual about the lock on the front door? It is upside down; this was typical in this period. As most locks were imported from England, consumers had to adjust their expectations. If the lock the builder had did not match, he would simply mount it upside down.
We found an excellent craftsman, Jack Crane of Tidewater Joinery, to repair the front door columns, which had rotted at the very bottom from water damage.
He found that previous repairs had used materials like pine, plywood and Douglas fir from California in the mid-20th century.
Jack made exact measured drawings of the existing piece, then turned new pieces in mahogany. Mahogany is a good wood for exterior use; it’s called utile and comes from central Africa. e then replaced the rotten pieces with his new turned pieces.
As we move into the mansion, you may notice that we have three doors that go to nowhere, including one each in the entryway, dining room (fig 13), and second story ballroom. These doors, known as false doors, can be found in domestic architecture in the 18th century. Annapolis alone has several instances of false doors, including the Chase Lloyd House across the street.
The tradition of false doors comes from Ancient Egyptian temples. The idea behind the false door is that spirits could pass in and out of these doors but the living could not. This idea then got translated into classical Greek and Roman architecture. When the Hammond-Harwood House was designed classical architecture, including elements of symmetry, was all the rage. The doors within the house were put in for pure design balance to create symmetry.
In Augusta Huiell Seaman’s young adult mystery The Brass Keys of Kenwick, published in 1931, the authorbased her book on the life of the last private owner of the Hammond-Harwood House, the reclusive Hester Ann Harwood. In the novel she said that the false door in the second story ballroom led to a secret chamber. Now this door, if opened, could only lead into the master bedroom. However; it has never been open– so if you have an active imagination maybe there is something more to the story.
In the dining room there is a unique door that further illustratess the importance of symmetry in architectural design. Normally in a home of the period a front door and back door would line up, and it does so on the Hammond-Harwood House; however, the door itself is unusual.
To accommodate the large dining room without the obstruction of a back-hallway, Buckland designed a jib window (fig 14) to be the back door. In this design the window pushes up and the little doors below push out into the back garden. When the window is closed it does not appear much different from the other two windows on the back wall, and even has the same wainscoting. Generally when one hears of a jib door it is a concealed door disguised to be flush with the wall, as seen here in the Ludwigsburg Castle in Germany (fig 15). The window jib door is therefore a bit different than the traditional jib door. Jib window doors were somewhat popular in the homes of the elite 18th century Annapolitans as five are still in existence, mostly in private residences.
I hope you enjoyed the overview of some of our unique doors. Tune in next time to hear more about our architectural treasures.
The Hammond-Harwood House shines as a beacon in American architectural history– important not only to the city but to the rest of the country. Historian Hugh Howard sums up the importance of the house saying,
“The Matthias Hammond house is one that architectural historians recognize as ahead of its time, perfectly proportioned, elegant, and—most important of all—apart from its antecedents. On the basis of Hammond house alone, Buckland earned the right to be called Architect.”
 Francis Terry, “How Palladian were the Palladian’s? The Use of the Scamozzi Ionic in Georgian Architecture,” Francis Terry & Associates, December 2016, https://ftanda.co.uk/thoughts/how-palladian-were-palladians/.
 Allan P. Greenberg, The Architecture of Democracy: American Architecture and the Legacy of the Revolution (New York: Random House Inc., 2006), 42.
 Ibid, Greenberg, 42.
 Christopher N. Matthews, “Part of a ‘Polished Society’: Style and Ideology in Annapolis’s Georgian Architecture,” in Annapolis Pasts: Historical Archeology in Annapolis, Maryland, ed. Paul A. Shackel, Paul R. Mullins, Mark S. Warner (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998), 264.
 Hugh Howard, Dr. Kimball and Mr. Jefferson: Rediscovering the Founding Fathers of American Architecture (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006), 34.