Only for about a dozen or so years, off and on, have I walked the marble floors of the State House in Annapolis, chasing down politicians and writing news stories. It’s something I’ll be doing even more of as I cover politics and power in the state capital for The Baltimore Banner. That seems like a long time, but it’s just a tiny blip in the building’s long and storied history.
Generations of journalists, politicians, lobbyists and citizens have searched for answers to the state’s myriad problems in the historic domed building for nearly 250 years. The State House is so old — the cornerstone was laid in 1772 — that it actually predates the current structure of the United States government and stands as the oldest state capital building in continuous use in the nation.
It’s easy to be singularly focused on covering the hustle and bustle of state government. But every so often I pause to remind myself how fortunate I am to work in a building with so much history. (Even as I curse the weak public Wi-Fi signal.)
One of the beautiful things about the State House, besides its actual architectural beauty, is that it’s free and open to the public seven days a week. And while there are excellent paid tours offered by private companies, you can soak up State House history for free all on your own.
Here are some things you need to know when visiting the State House:
First, you’ve got to get there
Annapolis is a 45-60 minute drive from Baltimore, depending on where you start and when you’re going. The best parking is at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (550 Taylor Ave.) for just $5 followed by a free shuttle ride downtown.
You can also try your luck at parking garages including the newly renovated Hillman Garage (150 Gorman St. off of Duke of Gloucester), Gott’s Garage (25 Northwest St.), the Whitmore Garage (37 Clay St.) and the Knighton Garage (a little farther away at 1A Colonial Ave. off West Street).
For those without a car, the MTA’s Route 70 bus line runs between the Patapsco Light Rail Station to the intersection of Calvert and Bladen streets near the State House. Definitely plan ahead: Riding the full length of the route can take nearly 90 minutes.
Since the State House is a functioning government building, you’ll need to show a photo ID and go through security screening. The building is open daily from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., except for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day when it is closed. Visitors can enter on the Lawyers Mall side of the State House.
Pro tip: Instead of climbing the massive set of steps that leads to the first floor entrance, use the ground floor entrance to the right of the steps. Unless you like the exercise.
You can see your politicians at work
From early January through mid-April, Maryland’s 188 state lawmakers are in session in Annapolis. They consider thousands of bills and pass a $60 billion-plus budget that’s funded with tax dollars.
This is the time to watch them in action from balconies, accessed from the second floor above the House of Delegates and Senate chambers. During the first half of the 90-day legislative session, lawmakers hold “floor sessions” in their chambers most mornings. As the session progresses, the floor sessions get longer and are held more frequently.
Lawmakers also hold public committee hearings and voting sessions in office buildings just down the street during session. If you want to make your voice heard in person on a specific proposal, this is where public testimony is taken during bill hearings.
The governor and lieutenant governor also work in the State House, but their second floor offices are understandably tightly guarded and you’re less likely to see them.
Pay your respects to Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass
The newest additions to the State House are also the most striking. Just before the coronavirus swept into Maryland in 2020, the State House unveiled life-sized statues of abolitionist heroes Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
The statues are located in the Old House Chamber on the first floor, which has been restored to appear as it did in the 1800s. There’s no evidence that Tubman ever visited the State House, but Douglass did at least once, in 1874, when he recited General George Washington’s speech resigning from the Continental Army. (More on that later.)
The statues, sculpted by StudioEIS, are striking. They sit directly on the ground — no pedestals — so visitors can walk right up to them and look into the eyes of the likenesses of Douglass and Tubman. It’s remarkable to think about all of the power and bravery that Tubman packed into her not-quite 5-foot-tall body.
Visit Gen. Washington
Across from the Old House Chamber is, fittingly, the Old Senate Chamber. This room served as not only the home of the Maryland Senate, but also of the Continental Congress when it met in Annapolis from November 1783 until 1784.
The room was restored to its 1780s appearance and reopened in 2015. It features a statue of Gen. George Washington, who resigned his military commission in that very room on Dec. 23, 1783. And weeks later, in January 1784, Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris in that chamber, officially ending the Revolutionary War.
It was that decision by Washington to resign from the military that laid the foundational principle that the young nation would not be governed by a military leader, but rather by a civilian. And as you know, Washington later became the first president of the United States in 1789. An original copy of Washington’s resignation speech is on display just outside the Old Senate Chamber.
Washington’s resignation also is depicted in a massive oil painting by Edwin White that hangs over the grand staircase between the first and second floors of the State House. The painting was first hung in 1859 and was restored in 2014.
Watch out for construction
Approaching the State House complex, it might appear that the whole place is under construction and inaccessible. But fear not, you can still check out the workings of state government if you’re willing to endure the not-so-pleasant sights and sounds of construction.
The State House has been the focus of a multiyear, $49 million renovation project. First, the dome was restored.
Now the State House itself is currently encircled in fencing and shrouded in protective fabric as crews work on many levels of scaffolding to repair brickwork and masonry, restore windows, replace roofing and repair cornices. They’re also repairing a retaining wall around the the building, making two entrances compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and improving landscaping, lighting, walkways and ramps.
The best way into the State House is to approach from Lawyers Mall and look for gaps in the fencing that direct visitors up the grand steps to the first floor, or through the ground-floor entrance to the right side of the steps.
On another side of Lawyers Mall, another crew is building a new Department of Legislative Services building and making repairs to underground tunnels between the various state buildings. That work is expected to continue through the end of 2024.
So much more to see
The State House is something of a living museum, full of art and artifacts. Here are a few more things to look for when visiting.
- Fossils in the floor: Look closely at the ground under your feet. The black marble tiles in the newer section of the building feature fossils that, according to the Maryland State Archives, date back millions of years.
- The dome up above: Look up at the State House dome and marvel at the fact that it’s the largest wooden dome of its kind in North America. While the building was constructed between 1772 and 1779, the current dome wasn’t built until 1785-1794. The dome looks better than ever after getting badly needed repairs and a face-lift, work that was completed just before Gov. Wes Moore was sworn into office in January 2023.
- An even older building outside: The Old Treasury Building is a small brick building that sits on the lawn between the State House and Maryland Avenue. Built in 1735-1737, it’s the oldest public building in Annapolis, which is a very old city. The Old Treasury Building hasn’t been used in years and is currently fenced off, but there are plans to restore it to its 18th-century appearance and eventually open it to visitors.
- Exercise your First Amendment rights: On the “back” side of the State House (the “front” side faces the water) is Lawyers Mall, the focus of free speech activity in the capital city. The recently renovated plaza has more room for gatherings; heated tiles to keep your feet warm on cold nights; and an imposing statue of Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court justice from Maryland. Throughout the year, but especially during the legislative session, Lawyers Mall is the site of protests, rallies and press conferences. It’s also a lovely place to eat lunch on a warm day.
This article, first published in 2022, has been updated.