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Riversdale stands out among many five-part-plan houses in Maryland for its refined composition and elegant details. Like Homewood House in Baltimore, Riversdale illustrates the transitional period between late Georgian architectural massing and a Federal period taste for delicate decorative features. It is also significant for its association with Rosalie Stier Calvert, whose letters provide vivid descriptions of life at Riversdale in the early nineteenth century.
The five-part-plan house, with its hipped roof center block, symmetrical hyphens and wings, and Tuscan porticos, was designed by its first owner, Henri Joseph Stier. The Flemish financier and art collector brought his family to Maryland from Belgium in the summer of 1794; the Stiers’ status as wealthy Catholic landowners put them in danger after the French Revolution. After living in various rented houses, including the William Paca House in Annapolis, Stier decided to purchase property near the federal capital.
In 1800 Stier purchased 729 acres near the port town of Bladensburg. He consulted architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe for a design, but did not like what Latrobe proposed. Instead, Georgetown builder William Lovering, who had recently completed the Octagon in Washington, D.C, oversaw construction of Riversdale according to the scheme developed by Stier. Alexandria builder Robert G. Lanphier was also hired to assist with supervising construction. Construction began in June 1801 with the east wing. The house was enclosed by 1802 but the interior remained unfinished. The exterior walls were brick covered with stucco, a fairly unusual treatment in this region. The portico columns were carved from sandstone from Aquia Creek, Virginia, the same material used for the major government buildings of Washington, D.C. in this period.
Stier and his wife lived in the partially completed house for a short time during the end of 1802 before returning to Belgium the following year. The rest of the family having already returned to Europe, Stier gave the property to his youngest daughter, Rosalie, as part of her dowry. She had married prominent Maryland landowner George Calvert in 1799. Calvert was the grandson of the fifth Lord Baltimore, and the couple lived at the Calvert family plantation, Mount Albion.
George and Rosalie Calvert moved to Riversdale and oversaw completion of the house between 1803 and 1807. Rosalie wrote often to her father to tell him about the progress and to ask him to send furnishings and fixtures, providing an outstanding record of many original features of the house. Rather than a center hall across the full depth of the house, Riversdale has a smaller entrance hall on the north, which leads to a transverse hall and the flanking wings. Three large rooms—a dining room, salon, and drawing room—are arranged en suite across the south side of the main block. The most elaborate interior decoration appears in the center salon, which has a triple arch motif on each wall. On the inside walls the arches consist of a doorway flanked by shallow blind arch niches and Corinthian pilasters. Original plasterwork here features delicate garlands and other popular Federal period motifs.
The estate included elaborate grounds with formal gardens, terracing, and an artificial lake; portions of the terracing remain on the north side of the house. Rosalie consulted with artist William Russell Birch of Philadelphia for landscape plans and began these improvements shortly after the house was completed. Only a two-story brick dependency, rebuilt circa 1820–1845 on the foundations of an earlier structure, remains of the many farm structures, outbuildings, and overseer and slave quarters once associated with Riversdale. Rosalie became owner of Riversdale in 1816, following legal proceedings (including an Act of the Maryland State Assembly) to fulfill her father’s unusual request that the property belong to her, not her husband. Rosalie died in 1821 and George in 1838.
Rosalie and George’s son, Charles Benedict Calvert, retained the property after his father’s death, buying the shares left to his siblings. He made some changes to the house such as adding the grape leaf medallions and frieze to the salon, and a Greek Revival cupola to the center block (now removed). Charles became known as a progressive farmer and Riversdale was a showplace of modern agriculture in the mid-nineteenth century. He helped establish the Federal Bureau of Agriculture, which would become the cabinet-level Department of Agriculture, and was also a founder of the Maryland Agricultural College, now University of Maryland at College Park. The Calvert heirs sold the estate in 1887 to New York developers who formed the Riverdale Park Company and used the house as their surveyor’s office and headquarters until 1893. The house survives today on a modest block of land surrounded by suburban development dating from the 1890s through the 1920s in the town of Riverdale Park.
Riversdale changed hands many times through the early twentieth century, serving as a boarding house, country club, and then home to several notable politicians including U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson of California and U.S. Senator Thaddeus Caraway of Arkansas. Caraway died in office and his wife, Hattie, went on to serve thirteen years in Congress, becoming the first woman senator in U.S. history. The property was sold in 1949 to the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) for use as offices. In the 1980s M-NCPPC began restoring Riversdale as a house museum. Riversdale is still owned by M-NCPPC and open to the public for tours.
Callcott, Margaret Law. Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert, 1795–1821. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
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