A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art
History of Early American Landscape Design
HEALD will be upgrading in spring 2021. New features and content will be available in May. Thank you for your patience as we modernize!


[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 ]
Revision as of 21:19, 21 December 2017 by E-athens (talk | contribs)

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. 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.


Alternate Names: Baltimore House, Baron de Stier House, Calvert Mansion, Riversdale Mansion
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[1]
Associated People: William Russell Birch (1755–1834)
Location: Riverdale Park, Md.
View on Google maps


Fleeing the terror unleashed by the French Revolution, the aristocratic Stier family left their native Belgium for the United States in the autumn of 1794. Henri Joseph Stier intended to stay abroad with his wife, his two grown children and their spouses, and his teenage daughter Rosalie, until they could safely return to Europe. The family settled briefly in Philadelphia before relocating to Annapolis, where they lived in rented properties. Henri was disinclined to purchase or build a home since he felt certain they would not be long in the United States.[2]

With the rise of the Directory in France, however, Henri decided to purchase real estate in America and become a naturalized citizen, which he thought would ensure his family’s security. His new son-in-law, George Calvert, who wed Rosalie in 1799, suggested a parcel of land near his own in Bladensburg, Maryland. In September of 1800, Henri purchased 729 ¼ acres on which he planned to build a home in the design of his estate in Antwerp, the Château du Mick.[3] Construction on the house soon began but, by the time it was nearing completion in 1802, Napoleon was offering safe return to émigrés who had fled the Revolution. [4] Henri reluctantly decided to return to Belgium to join their extended family.

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

Yet 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: “We have resigned ourselves to the inevitable decision to return,” Henri wrote. “Since no hope remains of seeing all my family reunited, I must join the greater number.”[5] He offered her the land and the newly built house, which he named Riversdale, making a point to have the estate placed in Rosalie’s name.[6]

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."[7] Her letters to her father indicate that she engaged the landscape designer and artist William Russell Birch to draw up plans for the plantation. However, Birch never visited the estate nor supervised the work and thought “very little” of his design was executed. 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.[8]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).[9] She also established an orangery in her cellar and salon, where she nurtured orange trees, geraniums, and heliotropes.[10]

Rosalie’s love for her family was closely entwined with the Riversdale landscape. She wrote Henri, "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."[11] 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. He made several improvements to the estate, especially in terms of farming methods, which were much commented upon in important agricultural publications of the time. Journalist and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted visited in 1852 and commented favorably on the grounds, including the fountains and flower gardens.[12]


  • Anonymous, August 1848, describing Riversdale, estate of George and Rosalie Stier Calvert, Prince George's County, Md. (American Farmer 4:53)[13]
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)[14]
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) [15]
The kept grounds are very limited, and in simple but quiet taste...There is a fountain, an ornamental dove-coat, and ice-house.


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


  1. Riversdale Mansion, National Historic Landmark Nomination, 26–30.
  2. Margaret Callcott, ed., Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert, 1795–1821 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 1–17.
  3. Ibid., 23–25. 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.
  4. Ibid., 33.
  5. Henri Joseph Stier to Charles Joseph Stier, November 1802, quoted in ibid., 35.
  6. 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 Mistress of Riversdale, 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.
  7. Henri Joseph Stier to Rosalie Stier Calvert, 1 May 1806, quoted in Mistress of Riversdale, 142.
  8. Rosalie’s location of the pond to the south, rather than north, of the mansion may have been due to Birch’s influence. See Mistress of Riversdale, 53–54.
  9. Using available archaeological and epistolary evidence, Susan Buonocore developed a map of the grounds at Riversdale during Rosalie Stier Calvert’s lifetime; see Buonocore, “ʻWithin 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.
  10. Rosalie wrote to her father on 1 November 1809 of her use of the salon and basement as a place to start her plants; see Mistress of Riversdale, 213.
  11. Rosalie Stier Calvert to Henri Joseph Stier, 28 June 1803, quoted in Mistress of Riversdale, 53.
  12. Frederick Law Olmstead, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States: With Remarks on their Economy (New York: Dix & Edwards; London: Sampson Low, 1856), 6.
  13. Anonymous, "Visit to Riversdale," The American Farmer and Spirit of the Agricultural Journals of the Day 4, no. 2 (August 1848): 52–55, view on Zotero.
  14. David Bailie Warden, A Chronographical and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia (Paris: Printed and sold by Smith, 1816), view on Zotero.
  15. Frederick Law Olmsted. A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States: With Remarks on Their Economy (New York and London: Dix & Edwards and Sampson Low, Son & co., 1856), view on Zotero.
A Project of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts

National Gallery of Art, Washington