Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Following Francis Scott Key

This week, Architectural Historian Rebecca Crew takes us on a tour of historic sites associated with Francis Scott Key, author of The Star-Spangled Banner

Following Francis Scott Key

In honor of the current winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, this blog post will consider the author of our national anthem, Francis Scott Key, and the places that commemorate him. What is the Gold Medal place that best defines Francis Scott Key’s significance?

Portrait of Francis Scott Key, Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Francis Scott Key was born at Terra Rubra on August 1, 1779 in what was then part of Frederick County, but is part of Carroll County.  Terra Rubra is listed in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties as MIHP # CARR-2 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 1978. Birthplaces of significant individuals are not normally listed on the NRHP, but Terra Rubra’s association with Francis Scott Key adds to its significance along with its representation of plantation architecture. The combination of NRHP Criterion B and C is likely what qualifies this place for NRHP listing.

Terra Rubra, Keymar, Maryland, birthplace of Francis Scott Key. Wikepedia
Key spent his early childhood at Terra Rubra, and then went to study in Annapolis at St. John’s College and Preparatory School. For seven years, he lived with his great-aunt and great-uncle at the Upton Scott House (MIHP # AA-726), which contributes to the NRHP-listed Annapolis Historic District (MIHP # AA-2046).  St. John’s College, chartered in 1784, was then contained within what is now known as McDowell Hall (MIHP # AA-675).  Key graduated in 1796 and St. John’s College now has a Key Memorial Hall on its campus, but it is a Modern structure designed by the renowned architect Richard Neutra that was not built until 1956-58, falling into the commemorative category of historic sites.

Upton Scott House in Annapolis. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Key married in Annapolis in 1802, and spent some years in Frederick studying law.  Between 1805 and 1808, he purchased a house in Georgetown overlooking the Potomac River. This was Francis Scott Key’s residence when he wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the accomplishment for which he is most-well known. 

A photograph of the Key Mansion before it was lost. Via
Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombing of Fort McHenry on the night of September 13-14, 1814 from the Chesapeake Bay.  Key was aboard the British gunship HMS Tonnant with Vice Admiral Cochrane, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross to negotiate the release of his friend, an Upper Marlboro physician named Dr. William Beanes. As part of the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, a red, white, and blue National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) buoy is located at Key’s approximate location during the bombardment. 

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. Via
After the bombardment, Key was able to return to land. Many histories state that he stayed at a Baltimore hotel known as the Indian Queen Hotel, where he completed his poem.  The Indian Queen Hotel, then owned by John Gadsby (who had formerly owned a tavern in Alexandria, Virginia) was at the southeast corner of Hanover and Baltimore Streets, a site now occupied by the Brutalist-style Morris A. Mechanic  Theatre. Other histories say Key stayed at the Fountain Inn at the northeast corner of Light Street and Lovely Lane (now Redmond Street), which is now a surface parking lot.

In 1805, Key wrote a poem that included the words “star-spangled flag,” and he had set this to the tune “To Anacreon in Heaven” which was originally composed by John Stafford Smith, and had been re-worded as “Adams and Liberty” by Robert Treat Paine for the 1800 political campaign of John Adams. The Smith tune and Key’s new words about the Fort McHenry bombardment were closely tied from the beginning.

There are several explanations for how the poem was originally distributed. The first publishing of the poem, as a hand-bill, may have been produced by Benjamin Edes, a printer at the southwest corner of Baltimore and South Streets, former location of the Baltimore American.  On September 20, 1814, the Baltimore American published the “Defence (sic) of Fort McHenry.” The Baltimore American’s office was at No. 4 Harrison Street.

Key’s great-grandson claimed that soldiers at James MacConkey’s Tavern in Baltimore first sang Key’s poem in late September 1814, and its first public performance is said to have occurred next door to MacConkey’s Tavern at the Holliday Street Theater just a few days later; newspaper accounts verify this occurred October 19, 1814.  The Holliday Street Theatre was damaged by fire in 1873 and it, and the site of MacConkey’s Tavern as well, is now the site of Baltimore’s War Memorial Plaza. 

War Memorial Plaza, Baltimore. Via
Carr’s Music Store (then assigned the address 36 Baltimore Street) published the song (the poem and music together) in November 1814. The Carr family operated music stores in Philadelphia and New York as well as Baltimore, and the song spread quickly through the country, which was still at war with Britain.  36 Baltimore Street, at the northwest corner of Baltimore and Gay Street is now occupied by Baltimore City government’s Charles Enton Building (417 E. Fayette Street).  All these printing and performing sites in Baltimore City are located within the boundaries of the Business and Government Historic District (MIHP # B-3935), which was listed on the NRHP in 1987. 

While the Star-Spangled Banner remained popular after 1814, it did not immediately become our national anthem. During the Civil War, the Star Spangled Banner was the unofficial anthem of the U.S. Army, and around 1890, it became the official song of the U.S. Army and Navy. However, it was not until 1931, during President Herbert Hoover’s administration, that Congress resolved to make the Star-Spangled Banner the National Anthem.  The 117 years between the writing of Key’s poem and its adoption as the national anthem suggests that Key's significance to Americans was not widely recognized during his lifetime, and this is reflected in the varying preservation levels of places associated with his life.

Following the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key continued a life as a lawyer in Washington, DC, arguing cases at the Supreme Court, and serving as U.S. District Attorney from 1833-41. He also served as Vice President as the American Bible Society, was active in the American Colonization Society, and continued to write books and poems. His home during the later part of his life was The Maples, or Friendship House, at 630 South Carolina Avenue, SE, Washington, DC; it is still extant.
The Maples, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Key died in 1843 in Baltimore, while visiting his daughter Elizabeth Key Howard; her house was on Mount Vernon Place in Baltimore. Key was originally buried at Old St. Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore. Key's house on M Street in Georgetown was sold out of the Key family ca. 1853, and converted to commercial use. 

In 1866, Key was re-interred at Frederick’s Mount Olivet Cemetery. Around the same time, his boyhood home, Terra Rubra, was damaged by fire. The Howard Mansion, where Key died, was demolished and became the site of Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church in 1872. The Francis Scott Key Monument (MIHP # F-3-159) at Mount Olivet Cemetery was constructed in 1898 from funds collected by Maryland school children, and while it commemorates Key, it is significant under NRHP Criterion C as an example of the work of sculptor Pompeo Coppini.

Francis Scott Key Monument, Mount Olivet Cemetery

The house where Key had lived in 1814, at 3518 M Street in Georgetown, was sold out of the Key family ca. 1853, and converted to commercial use undergoing variations over time that eventually diminished its integrity of design, materials, and workmanship.  In 1907, the Francis Scott Key Memorial Association was established with the purpose of buying and preserving Key’s Georgetown house as a memorial to Key; the organization failed to acquire enough funds to purchase the house.  In 1923, a new bridge over the Potomac River connecting Georgetown and Rosslyn, Virginia was named for Francis Scott Key and located near 3518 M Street. This reinforced concrete arch bridge was added to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1995 and to the NRHP in 1996 under Criterion C.  In 1931 the federal government acquired the 3518 M Street property as part of Palisades Park, but by this time, the house was too altered and in too poor condition to warrant preservation.  Francis Scott Key Park was established on the site in 1933.  

Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge over the Potomac. Wikipedia
Baltimore’s own Francis Scott Key Monument, a sculpture by Jean Marius Antonin Mercie was erected at Eutaw Place and West Lanvale Street in 1911. 

Francis Scott Key Monument, Eutaw Place, Baltimore. Wikipedia
In 1925, Fort McHenry was made a National Park, and it was made a National Monument and Historic Shrine in 1939. It was added to the NRHP in 1966, the inaugural year of the list. Finally, the Maryland State Highway Administration bridge carrying I-695 over the Patapsco River in Baltimore County was completed in 1977. The bridge has not yet reached the age at which it will be evaluated for the NRHP (50 years). Named for Francis Scott Key, it was built by and continues to be maintained by the Maryland Transportation Authority. Its commemorative naming is appropriate given its location near the site where Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
Francis Scott Key’s The Star-Spangled Banner has come along way from the Patapsco River to the current Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The anthem's lyricist also traveled extensively during his lifetime, although many of the places he lived and visited are no longer extant. Key's boyhood home, his college, and his late-life home remain to this day, and he is commemorated all across the nation in the names of schools, bridges, and monuments. Overall, though, this judge finds Baltimore deserves the Gold Medal for being the place where Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry, where he wrote the poem, where it was first printed, sung, and performed, and where Key died, was originally buried, and remains commemorated through impressive monuments. Despite the loss of actual buildings, the relationship of these points on the landscape preserves the association of Francis Scott Key and The Star-Spangled Banner.



  1. Very nice work Rebecca.

    If I recall correctly, Key lived in a townhouse or dwelling in what we know today as Judiciary Square. I believe it was on D Street, long gone and currently occupied by the DOL.

    Apologies for not having the source, but probably one of the two older bios.

  2. Thanks for reading and we're glad you enjoyed Rebecca's latest post! You're right; Key moved from the Key Mansion to a place in Judiciary Square around 1830, a site now occupied by the Department of Labor. Stay tuned if you're interested in Francis Scott Key: this summer we're beginning excavations at Scott Plantation, the residence of Francis Scott Key's grandparents outside Annapolis.

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