Erected between about 1795 and 1805, Poplar Hill is a rare survivor of early Salisbury and one of the largest and most finely articulated Federal houses on the Eastern Shore. The house was built for Major Levin Hardy, a local merchant formerly of Newport, Rhode Island, on the 357-acre farm that he purchased in 1795, then located well outside of town. Hardy died in 1805, before the house could be fully completed; that task fell to the next owner, Dr. John Huston, who acquired the property the same year. The sophistication of Poplar Hill’s Federal styling, which far outpaced any others in the area, has been attributed to Hardy’s urbane Newport roots. However, it has also been speculated that the design was influenced by Chanceford, an example of the gable- or temple-fronted Federal house built just prior in Snow Hill, the commercial center of neighboring Worchester County. Certainly Poplar Hill was among the impressive, finely articulated Federal houses that set the tone for the many others like it built in this region in the decades to come. Fueled by highly profitable grain and other cash crop production, the early nineteenth century was an era that witnessed the construction of many opulent houses favoring the Federal and Greek Revival styles.
A large, double-pile, two-and-a-half-story frame structure set on a high brick basement, Poplar Hill commands an imposing presence. It exhibits exceptional integrity and refined detailing indicative of the Federal style, such as its bilaterally symmetrical, five-bay front elevation; elaborate center-entry frontispiece with fanlight and pediment; large, second-story Palladian windows to the front and rear; and decorative cornice encompassing dentils, modillions, and double ogee crown molding. Another noteworthy Federal feature is the pedimented gable ends with a bull-eye window at its apex. Poplar Hill is also distinguished by its beaded clapboard siding, Georgian twelve-over-twelve sash windows with louvered shutters, and entry stoop with a Chinese Chippendale balustrade.
The interior plan encompasses a broad center passage divided by an ornately carved elliptical arch into entry and stair halls, with a large dining room and back hall to the east side and a parlor and private family chamber to the west. The room variations to either side of the center passage are reflected in the exterior fenestration, which lacks the usual symmetry to the east, where the rooms are disproportionate in size. The size and opulence of the dining room indicates the importance placed on dining as a form of entertainment during this period.
The house exhibits some of the finest woodworking in the region, including elaborate baseboard, chair rail, and cornice moldings featuring reeding and punch-and-gouge work. The open-string, dogleg stair rises to a landing that runs the length of the hall and is lit by a Palladian window. The stair has an elegant balustrade that terminates in a scroll pattern, mirrored by a shadow railing imbedded along the inside wall. The current single-story kitchen wing adjoins the dining room to the rear via a hallway with a back service stair. It is said to have replaced an earlier colonnade and detached kitchen (a feature of Eastern Shore houses rarely found extant).
Poplar Hill was also integral to the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century expansion of Salisbury. The farm was eventually subdivided and incorporated into the city limits as its first suburb, known as Newtown. Now a historic district, Newtown contains houses dating from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, encompassing an eclectic mix of styles such as Greek Revival, Queen Anne, and Colonial Revival. Poplar Hill escaped the devastating Salisbury fires of 1860 and 1886 and today stands alone as the town’s only architecturally significant Federal house. Since the 1970s, Poplar Hill has been owned by the City of Salisbury and operated as a house museum.
Touart, Paul B., “Poplar Hill Mansion,” Wicomico County, Maryland. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1998. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.