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Stagg Hall is among the most fully developed and best preserved examples of mid-eighteenth-century vernacular domestic architecture in southern Maryland. It possesses numerous features indicative of the era, such as its early two-room center hall plan, steeply pitched gambrel roof with flared eaves, corbeled freestanding chimney stacks, interior paneling, and other woodwork. Stagg Hall is thus of particular value in understanding the development of the vernacular architecture of this region.
Stagg Hall is located in the town of Port Tobacco, which was established in 1684 and by the mid-eighteenth century had become an important terminus of the trans-Atlantic tobacco trade, rivaling Annapolis, Georgetown, and Alexandria as a commercial center. The town’s gridded plan was laid out in 1729, two years after its designation as the county seat. The plan centered on the existing courthouse and church to include a parcel set aside for a marketplace and 100 equally sized building lots. Fifteen buildings were constructed by 1732, and by 1760 the town had grown to be among the largest on the Western Shore. Between 1739 and 1746, John Parnham, one of the town’s most successful merchants, built Stagg Hall as a residence for his family, which included the heirs to the property, his nephew, Francis, and his nephew’s son, John Parnham II, both prominent local physicians.
Stagg Hall is a story-and-a-half, five-bay, Tidewater-style frame structure measuring approximately 39 by 19 feet and including a two-part service wing (a replica of the original) built around the extant center chimney. A larger east room and off-center passage/stair hall account for the house’s asymmetrical design. Among its significant exterior features are its partially detached brick chimneys, a defining feature of the early vernacular architecture of this region that was used to safeguard the frame dwelling from fires caused by sparks emanating from the chimney. While the gambrel roof was also a common feature of local Tidewater design beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, Stagg Hall’s flared eaves and steep pitch were less common. Gambrel roofs were a later variation on the traditional one-and-a-half story, gable-roof Tidewater dwelling often utilized to span a two-room-deep plan while creating additional head room in the second story; Stagg Hall’s one-room-deep plan accounts for the roof’s steep pitch. The house also retains its early nine-over-nine sash windows.
Of particular importance is Stagg Hall’s original interior woodwork that includes paneled wainscoting, boxed and molded cornices, paneled doors, and early hardware. The larger of the two first-floor rooms includes a full paneled chimney wall with classical detailing such as the fluted pilasters that flank the fireplace and a built-in cabinet with arched opening and pilasters matching those on the fireplace. Also of note is the paneled wainscoting in the center passage, which is carried out along the inside wall of the closed-string staircase that includes an impressive balustrade featuring turned balusters and octagonal newels ornamented by flutes and lamb’s tongue carvings. More generally speaking, Stagg Hall’s center passage plan, mediating between its flanking formal rooms, outpaced the average two-room, single-story-and-loft, hall-and-parlor plan of the era.
Dependent on tobacco cultivation and trade as part of a slave-based economy, Port Tobacco began its decline during the second decade of the nineteenth century with the silting of the Port Tobacco River, hindering its transportation network. Other factors in its decline included southern Marylanders’ failure to supplant tobacco with grain production, as occurred in most other Maryland counties, and the Civil War and the end of slavery. Facing a steady decline, the final blow to Port Tobacco’s prominence came when the courthouse burned in 1892 and the county seat was moved to nearby La Plata. Once Charles County’s largest and most important settlements during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most of the eighty-some buildings that existed in its heyday are now archaeological sites.
Stagg Hall remained in the Parnham family until 1903. The Art Institute of Chicago purchased the interior woodwork in 1932 but it was returned to Stagg Hall in the 1970s. Now open for public tours, Stagg Hall remains a tangible reminder of the former importance of the town and of tobacco cultivation in Maryland.
Rivoire, Richard J., “Port Tobacco,” Charles County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination, 1988. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Rivoire, Richard J., “Stagg Hall (Parnham-Pagett House, Spalding’s Corner),” Charles County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination, 1988. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
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