A recent visit to Colonial Williamsburg prompted me to return to the Riversdale House Museum, which might fairly be called a slice of early 1800s life in just a short drive from Bladensburg in Prince George’s County.
Built by Flemish émigré Henri Joseph Stier and his daughter Rosalie Stier Calvert from 1801 to 1807, the house provided a mélange of the lifestyles of the low countries and the American Republic in its the early years.
Stier was obliged to emigrate from his native Belgium in the turbulent years of the French Revolution, with its persecution of the nobility and suspicion of wealth.
Stier took many artworks with him of artists who made the low countries famous for painting: Rembrandt, Rubens, Breugel and Van Dyke. In fact, for a few years, this house held perhaps the greatest collection of Dutch and Flemish master paintings ever in the United States of America.
Indeed, the house called Riversdale (even though the town was later named “Riverdale”) has commissioned reproductions of several of these Netherlandic and Belgian masterpieces, including Bruegel’s view of many animals in pairs, with Noah’s ark seen in the distance, and Rubens’ painting of Romulus and Remus, legendary builders of Rome, seen as children raised by wolves. Another painting, a reproduction of a work by famed American portraitist Gilbert Stuart, features Rosalie Stier, who married into the prominent Calvert family of Maryland.
In a development unusual for women of her time, Rosalie retained stewardship and ownership of the Riversdale house and prosperous farm.
Significant progress has been made in both the restoration and interpretation of the home since I visited many years ago. The Riversdale Historical Society was guided in these endeavors by hundreds of letters written by Rosalie Calvert to her family in Belgium between 1795-1821. These letters were translated from the French by Riversdale Historical Society member and author Margaret Callcott and then published in 1991.
Particularly noteworthy is the salon or “orangerie,” in which Rosalie presented understated European elegance adaptable to 1800s American life. Parisian green walls, floral reliefs on molding, and a painstakingly reproduced copy of the original canvas floorcloth give a pleasant atmosphere to what was a sort of green-room for citrus trees. Lemon trees fulfill this role today, as there is an attempt everywhere in the house to keep alive traditions of the past, including pre-Victorian Christmas decorations and stylistics.
A painting of Riversdale on display depicting couples dressed in the early 1800s as well as many later fashions is of interest and was painted by Riverdale Park artist Gerald King.
Furnished bedrooms and dining areas and a pantry area with a magnificent full collection of rare American Tucker porcelain all testify to the meticulous work which has been done here to keep the period of the first decades of the 19th century alive. The Museum makes the very wise choice to be cautious about its restorations: research is ongoing, new information can come to light, and nothing is done to create repairs that might be misguided and cannot be undone easily.
To its credit, the Riversdale House Museum does not merely romanticize the past of its prosperous owners but instead discussed the lives of the house’s enslaved workers, especially in the museum’s depiction of the African American Plummer family. J. Patrick Gossett, Howard Menaker, and other historian-docents associated with the house are very knowledgeable about all aspects of the era.
Janet Mullany, a native of the U.K. who was my guide through much of the tour, made the interesting point that just as the Stiers were refugees from their land of political and social upheaval, this is also true of many residents today in the surrounding Riverdale Park community.
Perhaps a way of gauging how far a museum has developed is its own promotional materials and the different uses it can make of its historical locale. There are balls for Twelfth Night (which was just upon us) as well as Christmastime celebrations for children to meet “Sint Niklaas,” Flemish for Santa Claus.
The staff of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) and Riversdale Historical Society volunteers photograph for and produce attractive brochures as well as the Society’s quarterly newsletter called “Riversdale.”
The entrance fee is modest, at $5 for adults and $4 for children. While visitors should not arrive at Riversdale expecting a full-scale Colonial Williamsburg-style restoration, everyone is encouraged to come, hear, and see the remarkable local, American, and European history this Museum contains and preserves for future generations.