Baltimore Town incorporated as a city in 1796 and, for 79 years, the city’s elected officials met in a variety of converted buildings — but never had a purpose-built City Hall. During the Battle of Baltimore, the city’s municipal office could be found at the corner of Holliday Street and Orange (also known as Lavely’s) Alley. According to a city directory from the period, Orange Alley ran east-west from Holliday to N. Gay Street between East and Fish Streets. Between 1830 and 1860, city officials worked out of the former Peale Museum (completed in 1814).
During the Battle of Baltimore, the population of nearly 50,000 made Baltimore the third largest city in the young nation after New York and Philadelphia. An ordinance approved in 1812 had divided Baltimore into eight wards. Baltimore had a bicameral system of local government, broken into two branches in the style of the nation’s legislative branch. Two popularly elected representatives from each ward made up the first branch – the lower chamber. One representative from each ward, exclusively limited to a group of elites selected by electors, made up the second branch – the upper chamber.
Baltimore’s Mayor (in 1814, a brewer by the name of Edward Johnson) and members of the City Council had the authority to make appointments. Some of these positions remain still in existence today, including the health officer now known as the health commissioner. Others such as the inspector of butter, lard and flaxseed, the superintendent of chimney sweeps, and the weigher of hay have long since been obsolete.
Young architect and native son George Aloysius Frederick designed the present City Hall building on Holliday Street in 1864. Upon its completion in 1875, Baltimoreans often gathered to commemorate the defense of their city at City Hall. Annual parades and speeches, as well as gatherings of the “Old Defenders” themselves, generally took place at either City Hall and/or the iconic Battle Monument a few blocks away.