Begun circa 1787 and completed circa 1810, Sion Hill is the most elaborate and well-executed Federal period residential structure in Harford County. It is majestically situated on the crest of a hill with commanding views of the city of Havre de Grace, the Susquehanna River, and beyond it, the Chesapeake Bay. The three-part brick residence exhibits the symmetry and classic detailing of the Georgian and Federal styles. It is composed of a five-bay main block of Flemish bond brick flanked by wings and is distinguished by an elaborate entry entablature with a Palladian window above. Throughout the house the typical window is a nine-over-nine-light sash topped by a stone, jack-arch lintel with keystone. A large, gable-front pediment with a lunette window and dentilled cornice, and massive end chimneys add to the verticality of the structure, as do the somewhat unusual shed roof wings that slope downward to either side of the main block. While single-pitched roof wings are uncommon in practice, they appear frequently in architectural pattern books of the period.
Sion Hill’s interior plan reflects the social hierarchy of room functions and the role that entertaining played among the elite classes. It includes a broad center hall with the stairway set perpendicularly in an open alcove. The formal rooms for the entertainment of guests are located to the east side of the center hall, with the more private rooms intended for family use flanking the central stair alcove to the west. The equally sized formal rooms to the east were used as the “winter dining room” and “summer dining room,” a testament to the hospitality offered at Sion Hill. The kitchen was readily accessible from the adjoining wing. The plan of Sion Hill is less common among similarly styled Maryland houses of this period, which generally include the stair within the center hall or follow the “Annapolis Plan,” aligned so that the formal rooms are to the rear overlooking the garden. Sion Hill’s layout with an offset stairway is, however, similar to that of Hampton Mansion in Baltimore. Plans of this type were in keeping with the designs of Andrea Palladio as interpreted for contemporary use and made available through builders’ handbooks such as Robert Morris’s Select Architecture (1757).
Sion Hill was begun about 1785 by John Ireland, who operated an academy for boys in the west wing, above which was located a dormitory. The main block served as his formal residence with domestic functions performed in the east wing’s kitchen and pantry. While clearly usable, Ireland never completed the house, which is listed in the Federal Direct Tax of 1798 as “unfinished.” In 1795 he sold the property to merchant Gideon Denison, whose daughter Minerva inherited it shortly thereafter, in 1799. Minerva and her husband Commodore John Rodgers were married in the house in 1806, taking up residence at that time. It was the Rodgers who finally completed the house by applying the architectural finishes. The winter dining room to the northeast is the most formal room in the house. The rooms flanking the stair were used as parlors. The front entry section of the hall and the perpendicular stair hall are set off by segmental pilastered arches. The open stairway rises uninterrupted to the attic. The interiors abound with high-style ornamental woodwork including overmantels, cornices, chair rail, and built-in cabinetry.
Sion Hill originally included formal gardens, traces of which are still evident in the boxwoods to the southwest. The principal facade faces south toward the river and the view shed is intact. Sion Hill was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990, having served as the primary residence of Commodore John Rodgers (1772–1839), known as the Father of the American Navy, and six generations of his descendants. The Rodgers are among the most notable of American naval families, having served with distinction presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Weeks, Christopher. An Architectural History of Harford County, Maryland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Weeks, Christopher, “Sion Hill,” Harford County, Maryland. National Register Nomination Form, 1991. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.