The King of France Tavern opened in 1784, when Annapolis, Md., served as the nation's capital, and has hosted generations of lawmakers ever...

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The King of France Tavern opened in 1784, when Annapolis, Md., served as the nation’s capital, and has hosted generations of lawmakers ever since. Legend has it that a secret tunnel still leads from the tavern’s wine cellar to the State House, an ancient escape route for heads of state.

Now the old tavern is about to be reinvented: as the Annapolis area’s sixth Starbucks.

The prospect of bringing the ubiquitous coffee retailer to the basement of the Maryland Inn, which has operated continuously at Church Circle since 1780, dismays some residents and town stewards.

“You think about that room, and the very historic ambience, and all the people who have been in that room over the years,” Mayor Ellen Moyer said.

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Moyer said the wedge-shaped Georgian landmark deserves better. And the thought of another name-brand merchant in downtown — in a signature 18th-century structure, no less — rankles some other locals, who point out that the city is already well-provisioned with caffeine. The new Starbucks would join at least six other coffeehouses in the historic district, including another Starbucks.

But Starbucks has influential supporters who say the tavern could suffer far worse indignities than housing a coffee shop.

“It strikes me as kind of a historically appropriate use for the place,” said Greg Stiverson, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation. “Coffeehouses were very popular in Annapolis and other 18th-century cities, both here and in England. They were a gathering place, and that’s basically what this Starbucks is planned to be.”

Starbucks, he said, “seems much more appropriate than, say, a mini-mart.”

Of course, Annapolitans of the 18th century could hardly have imagined a coffeehouse on the scale of Starbucks, a national chain with more stores — about 7,000 in the United States alone, according to a company fact sheet — than Annapolis had citizens in 1780.

City leaders don’t actually have much say about who rents the empty space, which was occupied by the tavern until 2003. The choice is the inn owners’, so long as they conform to the city code, zoning rules and architectural concerns that govern the historic district.

Any alteration to the exterior of a building in the historic district must go before the town’s seven-member Historic Preservation Commission. With Starbucks, concern centers on the circular sign, 36 inches in diameter, that would hang outside the inn. It would bear the company’s familiar green-and-black logo.

The sign “is something you see in shopping centers, not on historic buildings,” said Stiverson, whose preservation group advises the commission on downtown projects. The commission is expected to take up the Starbucks proposal in mid-January.

In notes submitted to the commission, consulting architect C. Richard Bierce declared the sign “too large” and quite out of proportion with the “scale and refinement” of the architectural setting.

Both the inn owners and Starbucks say they intend to preserve the exposed brick and stone walls, wooden rafters and low-slung brick archway that gave the King of France its ambience.

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