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Poplar Hill on His Lordship’s Kindness
His Lordship’s Kindness is among the finest of a number of Georgian plantation houses built by Prince George’s County’s wealthy planter and merchant class during the late eighteenth-century. Built for Robert Darnall c. 1784–1786 on the estate granted to his grandfather, Colonel Henry Darnall, by colonial proprietor Charles Calvert (also known as Lord Baltimore), in 1702, the house has the five-part plan and other distinctive features of Palladian-influenced, late-Georgian design. Based on receipts for payment of plasterwork (to David Guisheard of Baltimore) and on dendrochronological analysis, it is believed that the house was begun in 1784 and completed in 1786. There has been speculation that His Lordship’s Kindness was designed by James Hoban, architect of the White House (1792–1800) and Superintendent of Public Works in Washington, D.C. but this would necessitate a slightly later date for the house, as Hoban did not immigrate to the U.S. until 1785. Whether or not the claim is true, the quality of the house certainly suggests a skilled architect and/or master builder. Its five-part plan and other features, such as the Palladian windows, elaborate frontispiece entry with fanlight, and delicate interior detailing, suggest the influence of the later Adamesque period of Georgian architecture.
His Lordship’s Kindness consists of a two-story, roughly square-shaped main block flanked by single-story hyphens connecting to one-and-a-half-story wings. The walls of the main block are of Flemish bond brick, with common bond used in the foundation below the water table and in the hyphens and wings. The house has both formal carriage and garden front elevations. The former is the more elaborate, including a center pavilion with pediment and a classic Adamesque frontispiece that has a fanlight with tracery and fluted pilasters. An unusual feature of the house is its complex M-roof configuration. Bisected laterally, from the northeast carriage front the roof forms a low-hip with a central pediment located above the pavilion front, and a single dormer to each side elevation. The section to the southwest rear, visible from the garden-front elevation, is covered by two, side-by-side hip roofs to form an M-shape configuration with dormers in the ridge formed between them, providing additional light into the second story rooms. While uncommon, M-roofs were used by eighteenth-century builders to cover large spans, especially over double-pile buildings such as this. They could utilize smaller and lighter rafters than would otherwise be required, with the weight transferred from the valley formed by the intersecting slopes to the partitions between the rooms within the double-pile plan. Among the other character-defining features of His Lordship’s Kindness are the large and elegant Palladian windows of the second story that sit above the doorways in both the carriage and garden front facades.
The interior room arrangement is as formal and symmetrically balanced as the exterior facades. Upon entering the house, there is a wide center hall differentiated from the adjoining stair hall to the rear by an elliptical arch. The latter features an elaborate three-run, open-well stairway lit by the garden-front Palladian window. The halls consume almost one-third of the floor space on the first and the second levels. The formal parlor and dining room are located to the front of the house flanking the entry hall. These public rooms are separated from the family’s private rooms to the rear by a perpendicular hallway. The hallway provides access to the wings and allowed the servants to discretely enter the formal rooms from the service area without passing through the main hall. The kitchen, largely the domain of the servants, and the family’s private Catholic chapel (now used as a library) are located in opposing wings and thus kept apart from each other and from the social spaces where guests were received. The elaborate interior finishes include, in addition to the elegant stairway, complex decorative cornices and chair rail throughout, doorways with dentiled pediments, and Federal-style mantels with fluted friezes and dentil molding.
The original landholder, Colonel Henry Darnall, was one of Lord Baltimore’s staunchest supporters during the early period of conflict over Maryland rule. Darnall came to Maryland from England in the 1670s. He was elected to the General Assembly, among other governmental posts. When Lord Baltimore left Maryland in 1684, Darnall became one of the deputy governors charged with running the government in Lord Baltimore’s absence. He later returned to England to join Lord Baltimore, but came back to Maryland as his representative to administer their landholdings. The land that Darnall received was likely a reward for his service, hence the tract name “His Lordship’s Kindness.” His son Henry Darnall II was a planter and lawyer who also served as Attorney General of Maryland in 1744–1756. Although successful, Darnall was force to forfeit his estate to pay off the debt incurred by his own son, Henry Darnall III, who was caught embezzling in his position as a naval officer. His brother, Robert Darnall, reclaimed the estate in 1773. Robert built the house in 1784–1786, about the time of his parents’ deaths. He referred to his estate as Poplar Hill, and lived here for the remainder of his life.
Robert Darnall was childless and upon his death in 1801 bequeathed Poplar Hill to his nephew, Dr. Robert Sewell of Washington, D.C. Sewell relocated to the plantation, renting out his city town house. Poplar Hill later passed to his nieces, and remained in the family until 1926. The new purchasers in 1940 changed the name to that of the original land grant. It was purchased in 1955 by John and Sara Walton. In 1988, the Waltons created a foundation to oversee the long-term preservation of His Lordship’s Kindness and to use it as a house museum and educational facility, as it remains today. Since then, it’s been referred to as “Poplar Hill on His Lordship’s Kindness.” The property is also noteworthy for its terraced boxwood garden, private family cemetery, and a number of significant dependencies including a former slave hospital, smoke house, washhouse, privy, and pigeon cote.
Heintzelman, Patricia, “His Lordship’s Kindness,” Prince George’s County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1974. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.
Lavoie, Catherine C. “His Lordship’s Kindness,” HABS No. MD-315, Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, 1989. 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.
Walton, John M., and Sara R. Foundation. “Chronology.” Poplar Hill on His Lordship’s Kindness. Accessed May 31, 2016. http://www.poplarhillonhlk.com/timeline.htm.
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