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Full text of "The history and construction of the Calvert mansion in Riverdale, Maryland / by Edgar H. Swick."

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Maryland of Tau Beta Pi. 







January 16, 1931 . 

Edgar H. 




Record of Deeds 
Plan of House 











The town of River dale, Maryland, a suburb of 
Washington, D.C., located about seven miles northest of that 
city, derives its name from that of a large colonial estate 
of which it was once a part. This estate was named Rivers- 
dale, but, with the formation of the suburb, the f 's" in 
the name was dropped, for reasons unknown. The original 
name designated the site as that in the dale of two rivers, 
the Paint and Northwestern branches of the Anacostia River, 
a tributary of the Potomac. 

The life of the estate centered around its manor 
house, a fine example of late American colonial architec- 
ture. It is this house, now known simply as "The Old Cal- 
vert Mansion" which this paper will seek to trace through 
its construction and colorful history. 

There have been few sources of information. 
Most of those that were found had been written for popu- 
lar consumption, and were invariably colored with myth and 
rumor. The most authentic information has been that ob- 
tained by word of mouth from members of the Calvert family 
and from the present occupants of the house, all of whom 
have very graciously given of both time and knowledge. 

All that was found will be presented. That which 


is considered as doubtful will be so designated. Little 
of the information is absolutely authentic, for there wore 
few records to guide the searcher, 



The history of River sdale, as is tiiat of any 
home, is basically a chronicle of its owners. The Calvert 
family, the original occupants, figure much in the history 
of Maryland. The state was founded by a Calvert and grew 
under Calvert guidance. 

The story of River sdale commenced when Charles 
Calvert, fifth Lord Baltimore, gave to his son Benedict, 
whose maternity is unknown, the land upon which Benedict 
built Mount Airy, another interesting Calvert home. Here 
was born George Calvert, Riversdale's first owner, the son 
of Benedict and Elizabeth Calvert, the sixth of their thir- 
teen children. (See geneology) 

In 1799, George Calvert won as a bride Rosalie 
Eugenia Stier, the daughter of Henri Joseph and Marie Louise 
Stier, Baron von Stier, Lord of Aertselaer and Cleydael, 
was a wealthy political exile from Belgium, and as a dower, 
gave to his daughter a home, River sdale. There were origi- 
nally two thousand asres of land which one souroe asserts 
was granted to von stier by George III of England. Another 
source says the land was bought by von Stier, and the most 


authoritive states that it was originally Calvert property. 

It was on this land, "beautifully situated in the 
dale of two streams, that Baron von Stier started, in the 
last decade of the eighteenth century, to build the man- 
sion. But rumor came that the von Stier property in Bel- 
gium was "being confiscated, causing the von Stiers to re- 
turn to Belgium, so that the house was probably completed 
by the Calvert s. To the estate George Calvert add«d t *o 
thousand acres, to make a total of four thousand acres. 

The home was first occupied between 1800 and 
1802, the exact date being uncertain. It is known that 
Rosalie Calvert was its miBtresa in 1803, for in dated 
letters written to a brother in Belgium she plaintively 
dwells on the hardships of her new home, which seem to 
have been accentuated by frequent child-birth. These let- 
ters are extremely interesting but give little specific in- 

The house is next heard of in connection with 
the War of 1812. It is known to have been in the direct 
line of march of a small detachment of British soldiers, 
who marched to Bladensburg over the old Baltimore Turnpike, 
but there is no record of its having been siezed. one 
doubtful source, however, records it as having withstood 


On the south front of the house stands an old 
cannon, about which is built a host of legends. One source 
places it as one of the four brought to America by Lord 
Baltimore to defend his colony. This would pair it with a 
cannon on the State House grounds at Annapolis, More au- 
thor itive sources place it as one of those used in the 
vain attempt to defend Bladensburg in August, 1814. In 
so identifying it one viriter adds the satirical comment 
that, "So far as can be learned no Navy Yard has been anx- 
ious to place it in its trophy yard." From a limited 
knowledge of ordinance, it seems that the cannon is too 
large --about ten feet long--to have belonged to the earlier 

Upon the deathrof George Calvert in 1S$5 , the 
estate passed to his second son, Charles Benedict Calvert. 
It would seem more logical had the estate passed to the 
eldest son George H., as was the custom of the time. The 
will of George Calvert, on file at Upper Marlboro, the 
county seat of Prince Georges County, Maryland, provides 
for an equal division of the estate between the two sons, 
and names them as executors. There is also on file a paper 
in which George H. Calvert renounces his ri^its as executor 
in favor of his brother. As to the division of the estate, 


lt is definitely established that Charles Benedict Calvert 
took the land and house, while any money, stocks, etc. went 
to George II. who, beside being a writer of note, was as 
great a lover of travel as was Charles Benedict Calvert a 
lover of his farm. An old inventory of the estate on file 
at Marlboro lists the personal property of George Calvert 
item by item, and fixed its value at $24,712.45-8-, includ- 
ing a number of slaves valued from one to eight hundred 
dollars each. The eight hundred dollar slave was a car- 
penter, and the one dollar ones must have been ventible 
relics, as a mere infant brought fifty dollars. 

As it was Charles Benedict Calvert to whom the 
estate itself passed, it is he with whom we are next con- 
cerned. He was a farmer to the core, and under his guid- 
ance River sdale gained national prominence as a model farm. 
One of the most interesting sources in this connection was 
an article written for the "American Farmer" by an unknown 
author in 1848, in which he pays high tribute to River sdale 
and its proprietor , He describes what seems to have been 
an innovation with Mr, Calvert, the draining of marsh land 
to form fertile fields. He speaks in particular of a fifty 
acre plot south of the mansion as follows; 

"After digging and graduating the drains, so aa 


to ensure himself of their capacity to pass off water into 
the open ditches, he fills them up with pine boughs, to 
such a height as that they will not interfere with the opera- 
tion of ploughing, and then covers up to the surface with 
the earth which had been excavated." 

This writer for the "American Farmer " also adds 
this interesting sidelight in the fluent style of the times, 

"MT. Calvert works several of his dry cows in 
the yotte, and he is decidedly of the opinion, that four of 
them are competent to perform as much labor as six oxen. 
We saw one of them in a team working with three oxen; we 
took especial notice of her bearing, and thought she took 
a more elastic stride than either of her fellow laborers, 
— and by the way it did not surprise us, for we have enter- 
tained the belief that there was more integrety of purpose 
--more truthfulness, --in the female than in the male sex, 
whether biped or quadruped." There is more information 
from this fertile source under "Construct ion. M 

In connection with his activities as a farmer, 
Charles B. Calvert established the Maryland Agricultural 
College, the fore-runner of the University of Maryland at 
College Park, To it in 1856 he sold four hundred and twenty - 
eight acres of his land for ten thousand dollars. He also 


loaned to the school two thousand dollars. He became the 
President of its first board of trustees, and it is in hie 
honor that Calvert Hall on the campus of the university is 

Besides being a successful fanner, Charles s. 
Calvert was a legislator. Records show that he attended 
sessions of the Maryland Legislature in 1838, 1843 and 
1844. He was a member of the thirty -fourth Congress of 
the United States, having introduced much farm legislation 
as well as the bill with which his name is generally con- 
nected, one providing for compensation to owners of slaves. 
In this way he hoped to avert impending civil war. 

Another more famous legislator intimately connect- 
ed with River sdale is Henry Clay. In the mansion he draft- 
ed the Missouri Compromise. In the latter part of his life 
he must have been a constant visitor at the home for there 
is in the possession of the family a portrait of Henry Clay, 
holding on his knee Eugene, a son of Charles Benedict Calvert, 

Charles Benedict Calvert died on May 12, 1864. 
His will and a reaffirmation are on file at Upper Marlboro. 
In the will, after a lengthy dissertation on life as he 
has found it, he nameB his brother, George H. Calvert, and 
his widow, Charlotte Augusta Calvert, (who is on file as re- 


nouncing her right) executor and executrix of his will. 
The property was to Toe divided at their discretion among 
the children as they became of age. The equity papers 
marking this division were focn»d, together with an old 
plat of the division which was practically valueless, 
since it gave no dimensions nor locations of landmarks. 

This division, which took place in 1866 marked 
the end of the estate as a whole. The estate was divided 
into zones which ran approximately east and west. These 
were distributed as follows: 

Zone_l, To George H. Calvert (son of Charles E. 

Calvert) 174i acres. This zone included what is 

now Riverdale, Md, 

Zone 3 . To Charles Baltimore Calvert , 203 1/4 

acres. This zone was north of zone 1 and was 

south of the summit of Cat Tail Hill. 

Zone 3. and 6 . To William H. Calvert, 298i acres. 

This included the property now being developed by 

H. C. Eyrd, known as College Heights, 

Zone_4. To Eugene Calvert, 314 acreB . 

Zone 5 . To Ellen Calvert Campell, 165& acres. 

This included the present College Park, Md. 

Dower . To his wife Charlotte A. Calvert. 


The estate had by this time dwindled from the original four 
thousand acres to shout fifteen hundred acres. There is un- 
doubtedly record of the losses as they occurred, but they 
would be too numerous to be of interest . 

After the estate was divided, the mansion was oc- 
cupied by George H. Calvert, son of Charles Benedict Calvert. 
Here were born his children^some of whom are now living. But 
the day of grandeur was gone, if famous people visited Riv- 
er sdale, if interesting events occurred in connection with 
it, they left no record. The family fortune was probably 
about gone, for in 188? George H. Calvert sold the mansion 
to a John Fox of Hew York, who at the same time purchased the 
dower division. These two tracts proved an excellent invest- 
ment for in two years Mr. Fox sold them to the Riverdale Parle 
Co. for one hundred thousand dollars, over twice what he had 
paid. The subdivision was formed, and thus ended the story 
of the land. 

What remains of Riversdale f s record concerns the 
house only and was largely gotten from deed records at Upper 
Marlboro. In 1893 the Riversdale Pari: Co. sold the mansion 
to Pannie Kelley Gordon, whose death in 1904 caused the house 
to pass to her only son, josiah S, Kelley, of Oklahoma. He, 
in 1911, sold the place to Barbara M. Graf, who resold it in 
1912 to T. H. Pickford of Washington. After the war the 


house became the residence of Senator Hiram Johnson of Cali- 
fornia who, however, did not buy it, in 1926, the house was 
purchased by Senator T-. H. Caraway of Arkansas, who lives in 
the houso at the present time. 

In the interim from 1887 to the World War, the 
history is as vague as it was one hundred years ago. It is 
just as well. The house was by short periods a summer hotel, 
--the Lord Baltimore Club, a resort for members of Congress, 
and a tea house, it is better to forget that period, for it 
does not belong. In fact, it i s already forgotten, so incon- 
sequental was it . 

More fitting are the present occupants of the 
house. It was built for such as they. They are restoring 
the house, both in structure and in prestige. Both are hard 
to do, and the process is slow. However, River sdale, seat 
of Maryland aristocracy, show place of yesterday, and stamp- 
ing ground of legislators, is surely coming back. 



Note; -The -writer's visit to the mansion was 
but a short one. The present occupant, Senator T. 
H. Caraway of Arkansas conducted him from basement 
to garret, but time was limited. The house is now 
a home, and the writer did not feel free to go roam- 
ing around with a tape measure and a probing camera, 
as would have been the case had the house been un- 
occupied. Exterior dimensions and photos were taken, 
but no interior measurements or pictures were obtain- 
ed. This is intended to explain a lack of specific 
detail in what follows. 

Pacts ae to the construction of Riversdale Man- 
sion are few, and these few are often contradictory, one of 
the other. The date of erection seems fixed as between 1790 
and 1802. There is good reason to believe that it may have 
taken all this time, for slave labor and massive masonry were 
not a fast method of construction. 

The principle material used was brick. This brick 
is a puzzle. One source quotes what seems to be only a leg- 
end, — that the brick were made in England, landed at St. Mary's, 


Maryland, and conveyed the one hundred and twelve miles to 
River sdale "by oxen, Another source admits that the origin is 
unknown, out states positively that the briok are not of local 
clay. A third source makes the probably correct assumption 
that the "brick are of olay dug from the site of the circular 
lake south of the mansion. This seems the most logical con- 
clusion . 

Baron von Stier has been named as the architect. 
There i s no foundation for this belief. The house is of the 
Queen Anne period of English architecture. Baron von Stier 
was a Flemish nobleman. There is some rumor that the house 
was originally intended to copy the von Stier chateau, seven 
miles from Antwerp, Belgium. One source states that it does 
copy it, but this seems unlikely, since there are in the fam- 
ily, letters from George Calvert to his bride-to-be describ- 
ing her future home. Surely he would not write to her concern- 
ing a copy of the home in which she was reared. The archi- 
tect is unknown, but whoever he may have been, he had a won- 
derful sense for symmetric beauty and simplicity of line. 

The walls of the house are extremely heavy. The 
basement is practically filled with huge brick arches support- 
ing the masonry partition walls. These arches are roughly 
built, with "saw-tooth" edges where the brick were not cut to 
form the intrados of the arch. The first floor seems to be 


entirely supported on flat arches. The basement is a dark 
place with small high windows. There is a totally dark wine 
cellar with shelves built into the masonry. There are two 
larger rooms, one of which contains a modern furnace, strange- 
ly out of place in this home of yesterday. Electric switch 
boxes also add a discordant touch. However, the main floor, 
reached from the cellar by a rickety stair opening into the 
east hall, is the more Interesting. 

The entrance to the house is on the north. One 
source says that it has always been so, that houses of that 
period always faced the north. Another source definitely 
states that the house originally faced the south and the 
nearest city, Washington. The large piazza on the south 
seems to confirm this statement. The main stairway and small 
entrance hall on the north bear out the prior one, 

Nevertheless at present the front (north) door 
opens into an entrance hall, To the south are three large 
rooms --a centfal ballroom and two drawing rooms (they once 
were). The walls of the ballroom have paneled recesses in 
each of which was once an oil painting. These have long since 
given way to paint, and the whole room is now painted white. 
The ceilings are extremely high and are panelled. French win- 
dows open out snto the southern piazza. The rooms to the 
right and left are similar, and each contains a marble mantle, 


replacing an original mantle which has disappeared. Refer- 
ence was found to one having been sold for fiftynthousand dol- 
lars, sometime prior to 1900, Over the mantel in the west 
room, a living room now, a portrait of Henry Clay is said to 
have hung at one time. The east room is at present a dining 

To the west of the entrance hall is the main stair- 
way, supposed to have "been designed "by Thornton, who was the 
original architect for the Capitol Building in Washington. 
This stairway has a gracefully curving rail so carved "that 
one wants to grip it with his hand." The newels are also car- 
ved as are the "balusters. There are two small service stair- 
ways, one to the present servant quarters on the east, the 
other to the west of the main stairway. 

At both ends of the main building are large wings. 
The east wing is devoted to the original dining room, which 
has not been restored, and to the kitchen. The west wing has 
the library which has been restored to as near its original 
condition as possible, and a conservatory which at one time 
may have been a chapel. These wings are at a lower level 
than the main floor, in fact all through the building changes 
in level are seen. This seems to be characteristic of early 
construction. The floors are of wide planking, dark in color. 

The upper floor is devoted to bedrooms, and a sit- 


ting room. The bedrooms have dressing rooms connected to 
them, and these have "been turned into baths. Here again are 
high ceilings which make the rooms seem too large for com- 
fort. Many of the "bedrooms are pointed out aa those occupied 
at sometime by a famous character in history. The Henry Clay 
room is a typical example. 

The whole mansion was heated by fireplaces.. There 
is a fireplace in every room. These range from the ornate 
marble mantles of the drawing rooms, to the simple brick fire- 
places of the bedrooms. The fireplaces are all built into 
the partition walls, and extend but a little into the rooms. 
Some of the fittings in the house at the present time, may be 
original, but the owners think it doubtful . 

In the attic, reached by a twisting stairway was 
seen an interesting bit of design. The west side of the 
building had a chimney near the center, yet there was none 
on the right. Investigation showed that to maintain symmetry, 
near the roof the architect had bridged the partition walls 
with heavy timbers, pegged together, and on this bridge had 
built a false chimney. Thus was exterior balance maintained. 

The rafters, pinned to the sills with wood, are 
nearly square, as compared with the long vertical axis seen 
in those of today. This may be attributed to a lack of know- 
ledge of stress distribution, which came much later with an 


immense saving of materials. Also in the attic is the cupola, 
with a fine view. The present occupant however, labels this 
as a fairly late addition, although no record can he found as 
to it 3 construction. 

The exterior of the house is covered with stucco 
or plaster painted white. Of particular interest are the col- 
umns of the south front. Tradition says that these were made 
for the Capitol Building in Washington, whose dates of "build- 
ing very closely coincide with those of River sdale' s build- 
ing. However, being cut too short for the Capitol, they were 
sold to George Calvert for use at Hi ver sdale. This story is 

The grounds surrounding the house are simple in 
their layout. To the south is a terrace, originally paved 
with marble of which there i s no trace at present. Then, 
there are terraced lawns and steps leading down to a circular 
artificial lake which is spring-fed. There is a circular is- 
land at its center on which as late as 1901, there was a sum- 
mer house. No trace of this can be found at present although 
the island is bridged to the mainland, on the north there is 
a curving driveway, leading up to the house from two streets. 
Also, there is an old slave house in line with the east wing 
which somewhat spoils the symmetry of the building as a whole. 
ThiB building is at present a garage. 


So much for the house as it exists today. A pic- 
ture of the home of yesterday is harder to find. The maga- 
zine "The American Parmer" referred to "before la the only 
source. It says little of the house itself but dwells at 
length on the estate as a whole in 1848. 

On either front were ample lawns with shade trees, 
grass plots, parterres and shrubbery. The barn, built with 
the house, was in keeping with the mansion, and measured 
eighty feet by forty feet. There was a cow house built by 
Charles Benedict Calvert to house one hundred head of cat- 
tle. The methods used in this cow house were the wonder of 
the day. Not only were the cattle kept warm, but they were 
fed crushed corn stalks — the silage of today. 

The soil on the estate, run down by long cultiva- 
tion of tobacco was being reconditioned by grass cultiva- 
tion and the liberal use of manure, Theare were twelve hun- 
dred acres of open land and <»iiong the crops were one hun- 
dred and fifty acres of oats, one hundred and fifty acres 
of corn and forty acre3 of rutabagas, together with a pump- 
kin patch of several acres and a five -acre garden. 

The age of mechanical devices was beginning. 
There was a merchant mill run by water, and this supplied 
flour to the whole neighborhood. There was a "Coleman fence 


raaking machine" purchased with full rights for Prince Georges 
County, The "biggest wonder was a saw-mill operated by steam, 
with which Mr. Calvert -manufactured lumber for the Baltimore 
and Ohio Railroad. The author had seen a twenty -foot plank: 
cut in forty seconds. This saw-mill was also used to make 
white oak furniture for the home. So ardent was Mr, Calvert 
in his admiration for his saw -mi 11, that he wrote the fol- 
lowing testimonial letter to its manufacturer. 
Mr. George Page, -- 

Sir,-- Having one of your Portable Saw Mills in 
operation on my estate, near Bladensburg, Prince Georges 
County, for several months, and being fully convinced 
of its great and paramount merits, as a superior labor- 
saving machine, I take especial pleasure in bearing tes- 
timony to its value, 

I § § § § 

Such, indeed is its simplicity, that I find no 
difficulty in having it tended by ray ordinary farm hands; 
nor would I find more, should it get out of order, in 
having it repaired by an ordinary blacksmith, or country 
mi 11 -wri ght . 

§ § § § 

When I look at it in full operation; see its 

wonderful powers, the ease with which it executes its 


work, I am a truck with surprise that a machine ao simple 
in all its part a, had not been invented a century ago. 

§ § § § 

Chas. B. Calvert 

Thus "began the profession of testimonial writing. 

There remains but one thing to say of Riversdale»s 
construction. That is to pay tribute to its permanence. 
Fundamentally, the building is as sound today as it was one 
hundred years ago. What is gone has been taken away; it has 
not rotted away. What builder of today can prophesy such 
a future for his work? 1931 may well learn a lesson from 
1800, a lesson that unit stresses and section moduli can 
never teach it --one in the value of permanence. 



Charles Calvert-- Fifth Lord Baltimore 
Children of Charles Calvert 

Benedict Calvert, died 1788 
M- -Elizabeth Calvert 
Children of Benedict Calvert 
Rebecca, died in infancy 
Eleanor -- 

M-Ceorge Parke Cuetis 1774. 

M-Dr. David Stuart 1783. 
Charles, unmarried. 

M-Dr, Steward 1780. 
Edward Henry - - 

M-Elizabeth Briscoe 17 96 . 
George -- 

M-Rosalie Eugenia Stier 1799 
Philip died young. 
Leonard died young. 
Cecilius died young . 
Robert died young. 
John unmarried. 
William unmarried. 
Ariana unmarried. 


Children of George Calvert . 
Caroline Mar ie-B- 1800. 

II- T.W. Morris. 
George Henry -B -180 3. 

M- Elizabeth Stuart 1829. 
Marie Louise , 
Rosalie Eugeni*?-B-1806 . 

M- Charles Henry Carter. 
Charles Benedict -3-1808. 

-M- Charlotte Augusta JTorriss. 
Henry Albert . 
Marie Louise -B-1814 . 

M- Dr. R. H. Stuart . 
Amelia Isaloelle. 
Children of Charles Benedict Calvert 
George H. 
Charles Baltimore 
William H. 

(These are listed as having shared their father's 
estate} . 


(These deeds at County Court House, Upper Marlboro, Md.) 

T. H. Caraway 

T. H. Pickford 

January 23, 1926 

November 27, 1912 

Liber 256, Polio 397 

T. H. Pickford 

Barbara m. Graf 

Liber 87, Polio 38 

June 10, 1911 


Jume 22, 1393 

Barbara M. Graf 
Josiah S. Kelley 

Liber 72, Polio 148 

Josiah S. Kelley 

Pannie Kelley Gorden 

No deed — heir by 

death of mother 

Pannie Kelley Gorden 


Riverdale Park Co, 

Liber JWB 

25, Folio 397 


Riverdale Park Co, 


John Fox 

November' 12, 1889 

Liber JWB 12, Folio 484 

John Fox 


George H. Calvert Jr. 

June 18, 1887 

Liber JWB 8, Folio 520 

Alexander Lutz 

June 16, 1887 


Charles B. Calvert 

Liber JWB 8, Folio 426 


The south front, looking fast 

?he south front, 
looking west 

Doorway to east wing, 
north front 

The lake, from the house 


The old cannon, south front 

The piazza, south front 

The lake, from the east 


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1. Colonial Mansions of Maryland and Delaware By John 
Martin Hammond. 

2. The Maryland Manual --Maryland Department of State. 

3. Potomac Landings --"by Wellstach. 

4. Dictionary of American Biography --published by 
Scribner and Sons. 

5. Historic Houses of Washington From Magazine and Newspaper 
Clippings — prepared by the Washington, D.C. Public Library 
"County Seats at the Capital" by Waldon Fawcett — from 

"House Beautiful Magazine "-April, 1903, 

6. Suburban Districts of Washington, D.C. --Prom Magazine and 
Newspaper Clippings --prepared by Washington, D. C. Public 
Library , 

"Bladensburg a Town with a Past" by Portia Brent 
(source unknown) , 

7. Homes of the Cavaliers—by Katherine Scarborough. 

8. The American Farmer Magazine. — Volume IV, No. 2, August, 

1848, Page 52. 

9. Personal help from 

Prof. ThomaB H. Spence 

University of Maryland 
College Park, Md. 


Senator T . H, Caraway of Arkansas 
Riverdale, Md. 

Miss Plunkett 

Library of Congress 
Washi ngt on , D . C . 

Mr, Erank Stephen 

Pendall Building 

V/ashington, D.C. 

Mr s . Mar ci a Hunt er 

The Gray Gahles 

Winchester, Va. 

Clerk of County Court and assistants 
Upper Marlboro, Maryland.