Family Stories · Brief History of " Montpelier "

Brief History of "Montpelier"

Compiled by David H. Buswell
Prince George 's County Historical Society, Inc.


A visit to " Montpelier " of Prince George 's County, Maryland, is a visit to the past - an era of gracious living and historical significance. It was here that George Washington stopped on his way to and returning from the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was here that Abigail Adams rested on a journey between Baltimore and Washington, D. C. A roster of visitors to Montpelier would read like a "Who's Who" of American history. Today, a visitor may look at the mansion, the lawns, the trees, and the unparalleled magnificence of the boxwood gardens and he or she may appreciate them for what they are. How this appreciation is enhanced, though, if the observer is aware of what has come before.

The Snowden name is as well known in Maryland as the Cabot name is in Massachusetts. The Snowdens were an extremely wealthy Welsh family and the first of them in America was Richard "The immigrant", who came to Maryland after serving under Cromwell. The exact date of his arrival is uncertain, but records do show that in January of 1669, Richard Snowden and Thomas Linthicombe paid 11,000 pounds of tobacco to a George Yates of Anne Arundel County. In return they received 500 acres described as "The iron mine" at the head of the South River, on the west branch of said river.

This purchase, together with original grants, continued the acquisition of Snowden land holdings that would eventually extend from the South River up as far as Sandy Spring, encompassing a great portion of four counties that join in this region. In 1686, for example, Richard Snowden patented a 10,000 acre track from the proprietary called "Robin Hood's Forest ".

Although the Snowdens engaged in agriculture, their vast wealth (in addition to what they already had in Wales) was obtained from the mining and smelting of iron ore for a growing country. Richard "The Immigrant"'s son became known as Richard, "The ironmaster", and records show a land patent to the "Patuxent Iron Works" at Muirkirk of which he was a part owner. Later records show reference to a "Snowden 'Iron Works". Because of the nature of their smelting operations, the Snowdens built their homes in proximity to the Patuxent River, which at one time was known as "Snowden's River". Richard "The Iron- master" built the original Snowden home in 1690 and called it " Birmingham " in fond memory of the famous city in his native land. Although this manor, with its unique medieval character burned in 1891, the foundations still remain some two miles from Montpelier just east of what is now the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Richard "The Ironmaster" had a son, Thomas (1722-1770). It was Thomas who initiated the building of " Montpelier ". The exact date of the beginning of the construction is unknown, but the most commonly mentioned date is 1740. The main section with its steep roof and two lofty chimneys was the complete house until 1771 when Thomas Snowden's son, Major Thomas Snowden (1751-1803) added the hyphens and the flankers (wings). The unusual semi-octagonal design of the wings lead architects to believe that they were designed by the very prominent colonial architect, William Buckland. It was Buckland who designed the strikingly similar Hammon-Harwood House in Annapolis.

Major Thomas (so-called because of his service with the "Maryland Line" during the revolution) is also creditied with embellishing the somewhat austere interior by adding the singularly beautiful interior woodwork. The carving was supposedly executed by an indentured Hessian woodcarver sent to Snowden by George Washington.

When the Major married Ann Ridgely, an heiress, two vast fortunes were united. Legend has it that Snowden's Quaker church felt him to be "sinfully wealthy" as a result, and it wasn't until he had freed 100 of his slaves that he was accepted into the fold again. It was also upon his marriage to Ann Ridgely that the estate became known as " Montpelier " in honor of the bride's birthplace in Anne Arundel county (now Howard County). In the fireplaces of the southeast and southwest bedrooms of the second floor are backing plates with the identical inscriptions "T A S 1783". The initials, of course, stand for Thomas and Ann Snowden and the date is thought to mark the year that " Montpelier ' was completed.

The Major and his wife had five children: Caroline, Thomas, Richard, Mary and Nicholas. Caroline and Thomas never married. Richard married Eliza Warfield and after her death, her sister Louisa (daughters of Dr. Charles Alexander Warfield of Bushey Park ), and built the beautiful home "Oaklands" for Eliza as a wedding present in 1798. Mary Snowden married Col. John C. Herbert of Walnut Grange, Va., and together they built a mansion called, not curiously, "Walnut Grange". Today this most unusual of all the Snowden homes serves as the superintendent's house at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. All of the homes that were built by the Snowdens as of the early 19th century (e.g. "Birmingham", "Montpelier", "Snow Hill", "Oaklands", "Walnut Grange", and "Snowden Hall") were joined by the rambling old Post Road between Annapolis and Washington, D.C.

Of the five children born to Major Thomas and Ann Ridgely, Nicholas (1786-1831) was the one to inherit "Montpelier". Nicholas married Elizabeth Warfield Thomas and eleven children were subsequently born of that union. The estate next passed to one of their daughters, Julianna Maria, who married Dr. Theodore Jenkins. After Jenkins' death in 1886, his widow managed the estate for many years. Her daughters, the Misses Jenkins, were the last Snowdens to own the property. The Snowden presence may still be felt by a visit to the family burial grounds in a grove of locust trees southwest of the house; a few well- worn markers may still be seen.

In the early 1890's, the estate was purchased by two land speculators, W. P. Davis and Martin W. Choller. They, in turn, sold the property and house in 1900 to Mrs. Josephine Taylor of New York City, who used it as a summer residence. In 1904, Mr. Lewis Blakeman bought " Montpelier " and sold it two years later to Edmund H. Pendleton, an author, who lived in the home until his death in 1910. The next owners were the Otto von Shraders of St. Louis, followed by Emmanuel Havenith, the Minister from Belgium, who purchased it in about 1913. It was Havenith who added the kitchen and servant's quarters extension off the southwing, somewhat destroying the symmetry of the Georgian architecture. Havenith also added the seven-stall garage.

"Montpelier" was owned briefly by Mrs. H. St. George Tucker in 1918, who sold it the same year to Miss Eleanor Fitzgibbon. Miss Fitzgibbon, a native of Pittsburgh, made many extensive changes to the estate. It was she who built the stable, tenant houses, and other out buildings, much to the dismay of those who felt such additions were out of keeping with the historical character of "Montpelier". She evidently made extensive interior alterations, also, for little if any of the original hand-carved woodwork remains.

In 1928, the Hon. and Mrs. Breckinridge Long purchased the estate. Mr. Long, a career diplomat, served as assistant secretary of state under both Woodrow Wilson and Franklin R. Roosevelt. Mrs. Long, an antique collector of great renown, added the beautifully intricate wrought-iron gates at the entrance to the estate as well as the handmade solid brass locks on the first floor doors. The gates and locks, while not original with "Montpelier", are from mansions of equal vintage.

Mrs. Long's favorite hobby on the estate was to personally supervise her gardens of buxus sempervirens or English boxwood, considered among the most beautiful in America. The garden directly in front of the house is composed of three terraces; the boxwood here is laid out in the form of a cross. The trunk of the cross was once a walkway from the front door down to the lowest terrace. The boxwood maze beyond the south wing is over 200 years old and the box, in some cases, is over nine feet high. An alley runs through this garden to the "Summer House", an historic structure in its own right. Prior to re-plastering a number of years ago, the walls were covered with writing--poetry and the names of people who had visited there for a span of over 100 years.

No one is sure of the origin of the boxwood. Some feel that the slips came from Wales, were replanted at "Birmingham", and subsequently replanted at "Montpelier". Others believe that the slips may have come from Ann Ridgely's home. Some credence is given to the story that George Washington took some slips of boxwood from "Montpelier" and used them in his own gardens of Mount Vernon.

After the death of Mr. and Mrs. long in 1958, the estate passed to their daughter, Mrs. Christine Wilcox. For two years "Montpelier" stood empty; vandalism and storm damage took a terrible toll. In the spring of 1961, Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox asked Mr. and Mrs. David Buswell of Laurel to act as caretakers and prevent any further destruction. The Buswells completely renovated a portion of the house; this was an interim measure, however, as Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox wished to preserve permanently the house and surrounding gardens for the enjoyment of future generations. It was through their generosity that "Montpelier" was acquired by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in January 1962.

"Montpelier", with its five-part composition (main block, two flankers, and two hyphens), exhibits the formal symmetry of mid-Georgian Palladian architecture, yet it often departs from the typical Georgian concepts.

Situated on a high knoll, "Montpelier" faces east as did most other 18th century homes of that type. The front and rear elevations are almost identical. Both have an equal number of 12-pane double-hung windows and central eave pediments. The central portals are of similar design, with deeply recessed eight- panel doors framed by fluted Doric pilasters and a tri-glyphed frieze under the pediment. The front portal has an additional fanlight breaking into its pediment.

The foundation is of local red fieldstone and the brickwork is laid in Flemish bond, i.e., the bricks are laid lengthwise (stringers) and endwise (headers). The bricks are quite colorful and often the headers are covered with gray glazing which causes them to catch and reflect the sunlight. These glazed bricks were often brought from England as ballast for the ships. The joints have ¼ inch wide mortar with the familiar trowel struck line used in the walls of the Hammond-Harwood House. The hyphens and the wings are on lower levels than the main section; the north wing is lower still than the south wing. The roofs, originally of shingle, have been slated. At one time, there were shutters on the house; this was an unusual feature as homes in this part of the country almost universally used inside blinds.

Another departure from the traditional, is the center hall that runs from front to back and is unobstructed by the stairway. The hall is adorned with a plaster entablature similar to that found at Mount Vernon. Two of the second floor bedroom fireplaces are decorated by Delft tile. The south west bedroom on the first floor boasts a secret panel-in the mantel wall that conceals a staircase leading to the bedroom directly above.

The southeast drawing room is generally considered to be the most beautiful room in the house. At one time it served as the dining room, hence the corner cupboard with its recessed serving tray and beautifully executed Corinthian columns. The muntins of the cupboard terminate in scrolls, a most unusual effect. Legend says that Major Thomas himself may have done some of the carving in this room. What is most unusual is that there is no symetrical wall in this room with the exception of the south wall; no axes are delineated by the mantel, doors, or windows. In this room, as in all the rooms off the center hall, the doors on the mantel wall are but 6 feet I inch high, while the doors leading to the hall itself are 6 feet 8 inches high. The reason for this disparity seems to be the designer's attempt to add scale and importance to the mantels by not overshadowing them with large adjacent doors.

For those interested in the more functional and utilitarian aspects of "Montpelier" as it stands today, the following data are offered:

•  There are 22 rooms, 10 fireplaces, and 7 baths.

•  There are over 60 electrical circuits.

•  There are two heating systems in two separate basements. The main section and flankers are heated by hot air circulated by two giant blowers. These blowers also circulate water-cooled air in summer. During a normal winter, about 2500 gallons of fuel oil a month are used to heat "Montpelier". The kitchen and servants quarters are heated by hot water radiators.

•  Water for the estate is pumped from an artesian well by a 4 hp turbine into five 2000 gallon tanks located in the garage. Prior to the well, water was pumped from a tributary of the Patuxent which runs through the property. The plumbing throughout the estate is solid brass.

After more than 220 years of private ownership which paralleled the growth of America from a wilderness to the greatest nation on earth, " Montpelier " has passed into the public domain. It has escaped the sad fate of many of its contemporaries which have disappeared in the wake of "progress", and its venerable doors will now be open to all who may wish to step briefly into America 's past.

An excerpt from "Taking An Imaginary Tour of Laurel" by John Calder that appeared in the souvenir historical booklet of the Laurel Centennial, 1970.

We know relatively little about the Snowdens before the enterprising young Nicholas (1786-1831), the son of Major Thomas and the husband of Elizabeth Warfield, built the circa 1811 stone mansion on the highest hill overlooking his grist mill at the head-of what is now Main Street in Laurel. To Elizabeth and Nicholas, children were born in 1808, 1810, 1811, 1813, 1814, 1816, 1818, 1820, 1822, 1824, 1828, and 1830, all of whom lived to adulthood, three of whom saw to it that Laurel Methodists, Catholics, and Episcopalians had houses of worship, two others, of whom became doctors, one of whom died fighting for the Confederacy, and one of whom became a nun. Whether or not their ancestral Quaker inhibitions made all of these people portrait and camera shy we do not know, but the certainty is that no likeness of any of them can be located with which to mark the places where their hospitality, generosity, or heroism showed through.

Grateful we are to Horace Capron, Elizabeth Warfield Snowden's notable son-in-law for having put on paper a thumbnail sketch of this gracious wife of Nicholas: "She was a beauty in her time and retained much of her youthful looks to her dying day, with her light hair, blue eyes, and a delicate and symmetrical figure. She was a Friend or Quaker, and was educated, refined, possessed of many noble qualities, and of indomitable energy and great firmness. This latter quality was often tried and she was always equal to the occasion. Once when there was a great uprising among the slaves, in the time when Nat Turner created so much furor, and again during the railroad riots on the B&O when her home was threatened and the lives of her family endangered."

To continue with Horace Capron's 1884 account,

"Near the Birmingham Manor house and near the Patuxent River may now still be seen the remains of the FIRST IRON WORKS EVER ESTABLISHED IN MARYLAND. Large trees are growing upon these ruins, or were when last seen, by the writer. (Col. Capron left Laurel, never to return, in 1852). "General Washington with his staff made many calls at Montpelier and was always welcomed whether they were hurried day calls or for night accommodations. Many interesting anecdotes are treasured up in the family connected with this old house --- Unbounded hospitality was a prevailing characteristic of this whole family. I have myself witnessed that house filled to its utmost capacity for a week at a time, numbering with their servants 20 or 30 persons, carriage horses, and servants and horses in proportion.

I will relate but one of the many anecdotes of the early days. A gentleman from Virginia, well mounted and accompanied by body servants, made inquiry in Washington as to the best stopping place en route to Baltimore and was informed (by some wag, most likely) that Major Snowden's place was the most noted and that he would most satisfactorily be entertained. It so happened that on that day the ladies of the Caton family, the most aristocratic in Maryland, were expected at Montpelier, and extra preparations were being made to receive them; and it excited no comments either from the Lady of the mansion or the servants when the gentleman arrived at Montpelier. Riding up to the front of the mansion he dismounted, and taking his saddlebag upon his arm, entered the mansion and requested to be shown to a room, inquiring at the same time the hour for dinner.

"In due time Major Snowden, who had been out in some part of the plantation, had returned and, being informed of the arrival of a gentleman-stranger, had dressed for dinner and was standing at the foot of the stairs in readiness to receive him and introduce him to his guests, supposing him to be some old friend, and was surprised to meet an entire stranger. It was evident to the stranger that there was a misunderstanding somewhere, and he explained to Major Snowden the misinformation he had been given in Washington. The Major recognized the joke, gave the gentleman a hearty welcome, and the two men subsequently became fast friends."

4811 Riverdale Road, Riverdale, Maryland

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