A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art
History of Early American Landscape Design

Riversdale

[http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/research/casva/research-projects.html A Project of the National Gallery of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts ]

Riversdale was the plantation of the Belgian émigré Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778–1821) and her husband, George Calvert (1768–1838), a planter and direct descendent of the Proprietary Governors of Maryland. Though estates were usually owned by men in the early Republic, Riversdale is one of the few that passed from father to daughter.[1] Rosalie received the house and land from her father, Henri Joseph Stier (1743–1821), as part of her inheritance, and oversaw the development of its extensive grounds. Much of what is known about the layout of the estate derives from Rosalie’s correspondence with her European relatives.

Overview

Alternate Names: Baltimore House; Calvert Mansion; Baron de Stier House
Site Dates: 1800 to present
Site Owner(s): Henri Joseph Stier (1743–1821); Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778–1821) and George Calvert (1768–1838); Charles Benedict Calvert (1808–1864); Riverdale Park Company; Thomas H. Pickford (1862–1939); Thaddeus Caraway (1871–1931) and Hattie Wyatt Caraway (1878–1950); Abraham Walter Lafferty (1875–1964); Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission[2]
Associated People: Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820); William Lovering (active 1795–1810); William Russell Birch (1755–1834)
Location: Riverdale, MD
Condition: altered
View on Google maps


History

Fleeing the terror unleashed by the French Revolution, Belgian aristocrat Henri Joseph Stier and his family left their native country for the United States in the autumn of 1794, intending only to remain until they could safely return to Europe. But when the youngest of Henri’s three children, Rosalie, married the Maryland planter George Calvert in 1799, the family decided to make their home in the United States.[3]

As a direct descendant of the Proprietary Governors of Maryland, Rosalie’s husband was an exceptionally wealthy landowner, possessing over 3,300 acres by 1800, which comprised the tobacco farm he inherited on the Patuxent River, called Mount Albion, and additional tracts of land in Prince George’s County, including a small lot in the town of Bladensburg.[4] When Henri began searching for property, his son-in-law suggested 729 ½ acres nearby, which would become the site of Riversdale.[5] Benjamin Henry Latrobe was commissioned to oversee the design and construction of the house, but Henri was vexed by his inefficiency and replaced him with the Washington architect William Lovering.[6]

Despite the Stier family’s plans to remain in the United States, Henri’s son and daughter-in-law returned to Europe in 1802, and they reported that Napoleon was offering safe return to émigrés who had fled the Revolution.[7] Henri and his wife, along with their elder daughter and her family, decided to rejoin them. Rosalie—married to an American husband, with a young daughter and another child on the way—was determined to remain in her adopted country. The news disappointed her father: “Since no hope remains of seeing all my family reunited, I must join the greater number.”[8] He offered her the land and the newly built house, making a point to have the estate placed in Rosalie’s name.[9]

Fig. 1, Anthony St. John Baker (artist), B. King (lithographer), “Riversdale, near Bladensburg,” 1827.

Riversdale would serve as an important point of connection between Rosalie and her European family. She and her father wrote each other regularly, and among their voluminous correspondence are Henri’s suggestions for the landscape’s design: “Note that the water, as a mirror in an apartment, is the principal ornament; the north side of your home is very convenient for this embellishment.”[10] Her letters to her father indicate that she engaged the landscape designer and artist William Russell Birch to draw up plans. However, Birch never visited the estate nor supervised the work and thought “very little” of his design had been implemented.[11]

Relying on both hired and enslaved labor, Rosalie created a pond on the south side of the estate and divided the grounds at Riversdale into flower and kitchen gardens, orchards, and a series of falling terraces.[12] A brick ha-ha separated the terraces from the pond and meadows to the south, and an icehouse, dovecote, slave cabin and other structures surrounded the mansion [fig. 1].[13] Writing to her brother in 1808, Rosalie described the visual appearance of these structures: “[The icehouse] is covered with straw and . . . looks like a little hut. A little farther on, a negro cabin gives the same effect and another we intend to build supported by columns will look like a little temple.”[14] Within the mansion itself, she transformed her cellar and salon into an orangery, where she nurtured orange trees, geraniums, and heliotropes, all exotic plants.[15]

Rosalie’s love for her family was closely entwined with the Riversdale landscape. In a letter to her father she wrote, “I feel attached to this place you have created . . . and where I have spent so much happy time with you. . . . When I walk in the garden, each tree and rose planted by your own hand is of interest to me, and I take pleasure in watching them grow and caring for them. . . . [E]very object here is dear to me because you used it.”[16] Following her early death in 1821 and the death of her husband seventeen years later, Riversdale descended to their second son, Charles Benedict Calvert, an important innovator in agriculture and husbandry and the founder of the University of Maryland, originally the Maryland Agricultural College.[17] He made several improvements to the estate, especially in terms of farming methods, but he continued to depend heavily on an enslaved labor force. Journalist and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) visited in 1852 and offered a description of the grounds of Riversdale in his Journey in the Seaboard Slave States: With Remarks on their Economy, published in 1856. He commented favorably on the grounds, including the fountains and flower gardens, while at the same time registering his disapproval of slavery.[18]

Elizabeth Athens


Texts

  • Anonymous, August 1848, describing Riversdale, estate of George and Rosalie Stier Calvert, Prince George’s County, MD (American Farmer 4: 53)[19]
“The main building is 68 by about 50 feet, with an elegant Portico on its northern [front], and a Piaza [sic], running its entire length, on its southern front, each constructed with due regard to classic and architectural propriety. . . .On either front is an ample lawn with shade trees, grass plots, parterres, shrubbery, and flowers, whose effect upon the senses impart an interest to the view, warm the mind into admiration, and give assurance, that a chastened taste and artistic skill had presided while these were being fashioned into form. . . . These improvements were made by the present proprietor’s ancestors, in the beginning of the present century, but are still in a state of the most perfect preservation.”


  • Warden, David Bailie, 1816, describing Riversdale, estate of George and Rosalie Stier Calvert, Prince George’s County, MD (1816: 156)[20]
“The establishment of George Calvert, Esq. at Bladensburg, attracts attention. His mansion, consisting of two stories, seventy feet in length, and thirty-six in breadth, is admirably adapted to the American climate. On each side there is a large portico, which shelters from the sun, rain, or snow.”


  • Olmsted, Frederick Law, 1856, describing Riversdale, estate of George and Rosalie Stier Calvert, Prince George’s County, MD (1856: 6) [21]
“The kept grounds are very limited, and in simple but quiet taste. . . . There is a fountain, an ornamental dove-coat, and ice-house.”

Images


Other Resources

National Park Service Register of Historic Places Documents

Riversdale Historical Society

Department of Parks and Recreation, Prince George's County

The University of Maryland Riversdale Book Shelf


Notes

  1. Writing to her father on September 28, 1804, Rosalie wrote to her father about careful estate planning, since “. . . the laws [in the United States] give little power to women and it is better to err on the side of too much caution.” Quoted in Margaret Callcott, Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert, 1795–1821, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 98, view on Zotero.
  2. Riversdale Mansion, National Historic Landmark Nomination, 26–30.
  3. Callcott 1991, 1–17, view on Zotero.
  4. Steven James Sarson, The Tobacco-Plantation South in the Early American Atlantic World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 26–28, view on Zotero.
  5. Callcott 1991, 23–25, view on Zotero. The property was purchased in his son’s name, Charles John Stier, who had become a naturalized American citizen; Henri would gain citizenship only later that year.
  6. Callcott 1991, 28–29, view on Zotero.
  7. Callcott 1991, 33, view on Zotero.
  8. Henri Joseph Stier to Charles Joseph Stier, November 1802, quoted in Callcott 1991, 35, view on Zotero.
  9. Henri had an antenuptial agreement drawn up for Rosalie and George Calvert, which ensured that her inheritance would go directly to her children or, if the marriage produced no issue, reverted to the Stier family. Despite this, Rosalie still had to become a naturalized citizen of the United States and required an act of the Maryland Legislature in order to be legally recognized as the owner of Riversdale. See Callcott 1991, 19–20, and William Kilty, Thomas Harris, John N. Watkins, eds., The Laws of Maryland from the End of the Year 1799, with a Full Index, and the Constitution of This State, as Adopted by the Convention, with the Several Alterations by Acts of Assembly: and an Appendix Containing the Land Laws; with the resolutions Considered Proper to be Published, vol. V (Annapolis: J. Green, 1820), 1754, view on Zotero.
  10. Henri Joseph Stier to Rosalie Stier Calvert, May 1, 1806, quoted in Callcott 1991, 142, view on Zotero.
  11. Rosalie’s location of the pond to the south, rather than north, of the mansion may have been due to Birch’s influence; see Callcott 1991, 53–54, view on Zotero.
  12. Sarson 2012, 28, view on Zotero. For more information on slaves held at the Calvert properties, see Callcott 1991, 378–84, view on Zotero. Before his marriage to Rosalie, George Calvert had already had two children through a relationship with Eleanor Beckett, an enslaved woman at Mount Albion.
  13. Using available archaeological and epistolary evidence, Susan Buonocore developed a map of the grounds at Riversdale during Rosalie Stier Calvert’s lifetime; see Buonocore, “‘Within Her Garden Wall’: The Meaning of Gardening for the Republican Woman, Rosalie Stier Calvert and the Gardens of Riversdale (1803–1821)” (Ph.D. diss., South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, 1996), 106, view on Zotero.
  14. Rosalie Stier Calvert to Charles Joseph Stier, December 10, 1808, quoted in Callcott 1991, 196.
  15. Buonocore 1996, 125, view on Zotero.
  16. Rosalie Stier Calvert to Henri Joseph Stier, June 28, 1803, quoted in Callcott 1991, 53, view on Zotero.
  17. Jason G. Speck, The University of Maryland (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010), 10, view on Zotero.
  18. Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States: With Remarks on their Economy (New York: Dix & Edwards; London: Sampson Low, 1856), 6–11, view on Zotero.
  19. Anonymous, “Visit to Riversdale,” American Farmer and Spirit of the Agricultural Journals of the Day 4, no. 2 (August 1848): 52–55, view on Zotero.
  20. David Bailie Warden, A Chronographical and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia (Paris: Printed and sold by Smith, 1816), view on Zotero.
  21. Frederick Law Olmsted. A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States: With Remarks on Their Economy (New York: Dix & Edwards, 1856), view on Zotero.

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