- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

Imagine life in 18th-century Annapolis. Not for the dockworkers, the fishermen, the merchants. Not for the barkeeps or the scullery maids.

No, focus on the rich and landed, whiling away the moments smelling the perfume of exotic flowers. Bathing in mineral water. Smoking pipes and playing billiards and card games by the hour. Enjoying life in ways of which the commoner could only dream.

The William Paca House and Garden, rising regally from a narrow downtown Annapolis street, brings this picture to the 21st century. The Georgian mansion, built as a town home between 1763 and 1765 and carefully restored by the Historic Annapolis Foundation, demonstrates how lavish Colonial life could be for the fortunate.

When wealthy planter William Paca broke ground on the estate nearly 240 years ago, he intended to create a sanctuary overlooking the Severn River for himself and his wife, Mary. His gardens, set in 2 acres, were cultivated carefully as an important symbol of the landowner's position in society, according to estate information.

Paca had portions of the back yard dug out to create five levels, which combined the Colonial style of terraced gardens and geometric parterres with England's trendy wilderness look, with beds of dogwoods, fringe trees, mountain laurels and witch hazel. The style of gardening, with year-round interest and exotic flora, was designed to show control of the laws of nature: If someone could govern nature, he also was fit to govern people.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Paca did rise to govern people, serving as a federal district judge as well as governor of Maryland for three terms. In addition, he added his signature to the Declaration of Independence.

Paca sold the property in 1780. Years went by, and the estate became home to a number of families. From 1901 to 1965, the entire estate was covered by the 200-room Carvel Hall Hotel. My mother, her bridesmaid beside her, was a guest there in June 1950, the night before her wedding to my father in the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel.

The Historic Annapolis Foundation purchased the former Paca property in 1965 and set out to re-create the estate. Archaeologists reconstructed the brick wall surrounding the gardens using the original foundations, and they discovered the remains of the summerhouse, the springhouse and the footbridge.

Several portraits and drawings provided further evidence of the garden structures. As no records of Paca's plants existed, researchers and botanists drew upon other nearby gardens and newspaper accounts for inspiration. The results are spectacular.

We visited on a weekday; the gardens were beautiful and tranquil, devoid of crowds. My two children, ages 3 and 6, trotted around the garden paths, reveling in the charm of the garden: the summerhouse, the pond and bridge, the bald cypress tree with its roots sticking up through the soil. My mother and I listened carefully to the hand-held audio tour provided at the front desk and rested on the benches.

Later we joined docent Barbara Meger of the Annapolis Historic Foundation as she led a small group from room to room within the house, explaining in fascinating detail the habits and traditions of William and Mary Paca's day.

She says she believes it's important for people to understand how others lived before us.

"We have to look back to the history to understand the present," she says. "To find this oasis here in the city is just so wonderful. You're really missing something if you don't come."

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