Erected between c. 1783 and 1795, Montpelier is a distinguished and well-preserved example of a late Georgian, five-part-plan plantation house with exceptionally fine interior detailing. This symmetrically balanced brick building is composed of a five-bay center block flanked by hyphenated wings with polygonal bays at the garden front reflecting the Palladian influence on Georgian architecture prevalent among Maryland’s wealthier classes during the latter part of the eighteenth century. Details such as the decorative entry frontispiece with semi-circular fanlight, and large, six-over-six windows are features of the later Georgian period Adamesque style. Such features also include the elaborate interior detailing, which is without equal in Prince George’s County. Montpelier is also significant as the primary residence of the influential Snowden family, wealthy Quakers who established, and then dominated, the local economy for over a century through their iron works, and later, their textile mills. Montpelier is by far the grandest of the many Snowden homesteads built since the family’s first settlement in the seventeenth century.
Richard Snowden, later referred to as “Richard the immigrant,” came from Birmingham, England, to Maryland c. 1658. He later received substantial land grants in the area and settled on this portion c. 1690. His residence was known as “Birmingham Manor” after his English homeland. Upon his death, the property passed on to his son, Richard Snowden II, also known as Captain Richard Snowden in recognition of his military service (despite his Quaker heritage). Richard continued to increase the family landholdings until they totaled approximately 27,000 acres spanning what is now Prince George’s, Montgomery, Anne Arundel, and Howard counties. Richard II started the Snowden or Patuxent Iron Works in 1735, the first iron works in the state. His property upon his death was passed on to his son, Richard III, often referred to as the “Iron Master.” From him, that portion of the extensive Snowden family holdings on which Montpelier was to be erected passed to one of his sons, Thomas, and then to his son Thomas Snowden Jr., who was responsible for the construction of the house. Montpelier remained in the family until 1888.
Montpelier was constructed over the course of approximately twelve years, beginning with the main block, c. 1783. That date is derived both from the stylistic features of the house, which reflect the more delicate Adamesque detailing of the late Georgian period, and the appearance of that date and the initial “S” flanked by “T” and “A” (for Thomas and Anne Snowden) in the iron fire backs in two of the fireplaces. That the hyphenated wings were part of a later phase of construction is evident in the change in brickwork from the Flemish bond of the main block to the English bond of the later hyphens and wings and the extant written account of expenditures made to construct the wings in 1794–1795. This source also indicates that some of the interior detailing was not completed until the latter period as well. Between 1916 and 1918, a new kitchen and servant’s wing was added to the house, and a garage structure was also built. Montpelier’s five-part Palladian plan became the form of choice among elite wealthy planters in the mid-Atlantic region, spreading into exclusive urban areas as well, most notably in Annapolis with the construction of the Paca (1763–1765), Brice ( 1787–1773), and Hammond-Harwood ( 1774) houses. Other noteworthy examples in rural Prince George’s County include His Lordship’s Kindness (1784–1787) and the later Federal period Riversdale (1801).
The centerpiece of Montpelier is a large, two-and-a-half-story, Flemish bond brick structure measuring 46 x 40 feet and resting on raised basement. It is flanked by single-story, hyphenated wings constructed of English bond brick with polygonal bays on the primary, or garden-front, facade. The latter features were likely inspired by the Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis (1774–1780), believed to have been the first use of polygonal bays in the design of a five-part American house. Also in keeping with the design of the influential Hammond-Harwood house is the hipped roof with a center pediment, resting atop the pavilions at both the front and rear elevations. Unlike the Hammond-Harwood House, Montpelier has near-identical garden and carriage fronts, an accommodation to its rural setting and the likelihood of visitors approaching it from either side. On the interior, Montpelier has a somewhat asymmetrical Georgian plan created by a center hall that widens in an L-shape to the rear to accommodate the offset stairway with a small study tucked behind it. The center hall, with its elaborate cornices and pilastered opening, is flanked by chambers to the front and rear. In keeping with the social customs of the day, the formal dining room is the most elaborate room in the house, followed by the parlor; both have views of the formal terraced gardens. The rooms located on the carriage front are far plainer, containing a paneled fireplace wall, simpler cornice, and chair rail. Perhaps because these rooms were intended for family use rather than formal entertaining, they are more in keeping with the simplicity called for by Quaker tenets. An elegant, two-flight, open string stairway cantilevers over the first floor hall and includes paneled wainscoting with a false handrail.
Montpelier sits on a high knoll looking north over a terraced front lawn and formal Georgian boxwood garden. Directly to the south-southwest of the house, the area from the rear yard to the end of the upper terrace is considered “the lawn.” On axis with the middle terrace running east-to-west is the boxwood allee that leads to the old summer house, a rare surviving eighteenth-century hexagonal garden pavilion or folly, constructed in 1796. It is a small frame structure with wide, beaded-board siding, a doorway facing the boxwood allee, and a window at each of its remaining elevations. The windows and doorway openings are round-arched with Chinese tracery to match that of the fanlight over the main entry of the house. Atop the structure sits a high, hexagonal lantern, capped with a finial. The interior is finished with plaster and architrave moldings surround the windows.
At the rear or carriage front to the south is a circular drive, approached from the northeast. The formally maintained area surrounding the house and including the gardens and outbuildings currently comprise about six acres, while the greater Montpelier parcel totals about seventy-five acres. Montpelier was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970. It is owned by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission and is open for public tours and available for private events.
Lavoie, Catherine C. “Montpelier (Snowden-Long House, Thomas Snowden House),” HABS No. MD-140, Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, 1991. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Landmarks of Prince George’s County. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Parish, Preston, Mrs. “Montpelier,” Prince Georges County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1970. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.