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Friends of Montpelier mark 40th anniversary

Laurel Leader

Decking the halls at historic Montpelier Mansion summons nearly a half-century of memories for Helen Haas, president of the Friends of Montpelier, a volunteer organization that began helping to restore and preserve the National Historic Landmark 40 years ago.

Montpelier was built in the mid 1780s by Maj. Thomas Snowden and his wife, Anne Snowden, members of two of Laurel's prominent early families.

Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation has owned the site, which includes 70 acres of parkland, since 1961.

In concert with Parks and Recreation staff, the Friends serve as docents; assist with outreach, events and exhibits; and support maintaining the house museum as a public treasure.

On Dec. 17, Haas and museum staff will don holiday finery to make merry with friends old and new at "Soiree at the Snowdens," a ticketed party with wine and hors d'oeuvres that celebrates the group's anniversary.

The jazz duo Entre Nous will perform songs in English, French and Portuguese in the mansion's intimate setting, where — as Haas wrote in "A Taste of Hospitality" cookbook available in the gift shop — you can "listen closely for the voices of the past."

The soiree, arranged by museum staff, will be the first Friends' anniversary celebration held in several years. Haas said attendance at their social functions has slowly dwindled.

"We used to have a big sit-down dinner, but we haven't done it for three years," she said.

Ann Wagner, office manager at the museum, said Montpelier staff wants to continue the traditions that the Friends of Montpelier started and sponsored.

Don Graham, assistant facility manager for Montpelier, calls the Friends "a community voice which directed the efforts of the commission to establish Montpelier as a house museum and historical showcase; that voice can be credited with where we are today."

Among the volunteer organization's current 160 members are Snowden descendants who live outside the area, Wagner said.

For "at least" four decades, Haas and the Friends have helped decorate the sprawling 18th-century, Georgian-style brick plantation house for the holidays.

Haas said she misses the nostalgic smell of fresh fruit and greenery and live candles after the group switched to artificial greenery and electric candles to comply with fire regulations.

"Within one year, every historic site in the U.S. went to artificial greenery," Haas said.

The decorations are more elaborate today than would have been seen when Colonials celebrated Twelfth Night, but the Early American theme, Haas said, remains as authentic as it is lovely.

"I'm still thrilled when we decorate for Christmas; the house comes alive," she said. "The Snowdens' hospitality is here."

Major Thomas Snowden and Ann Ridgley Snowden were the first of two generations of Snowdens to live in the house. George Washington and Abigail Adams were among the many distinguished guests that visited.

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission acquired ownership of Montpelier Mansion in 1961 through a donation from the mansion's last private owner, Christine Willcox, who inherited the mansion from her father, diplomat and politician Samuel Breckinridge Long, who died in 1958.

In 1967, Haas became the first charter member of another group, the Laurel Art Guild, founded by Louise Kyanko. In its early years, the guild held art exhibits at the mansion, and continues to be a presence at the Montpelier Arts Center, located on the mansion grounds.

In 1970, Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel designated Montpelier Mansion as a National Historic Landmark, but the house "lay fallow," according to Haas.

She said there were just a few pieces of furniture there, on loan.

Haas said it was through her work with the Laurel Art Guild that she met some of the Prince George's County legislators she would lobby in the Friends' fight to secure the mansion as a public educational resource.

When then-Laurel Mayor Leo Wilson invited Haas to join a committee planning the city's Bicentennial celebration, she, in turn, invited guild member Louise Speicher. Haas and Speicher organized the Bicentennial Festival held on the Montpelier Mansion grounds in June 1976.

The budding friends co-founded the Friends of Montpelier with the encouragement of the commission that year.

Haas remembers when annual parties were held at the mansion, hosted by Andy Eppelman, founder of the Oakland Civic Association, that were attended by state and county legislators, as patronage of the historic site began to catch on in the public arena.

"They loved the house; future Gov. Parris Glendening would conduct tours up the stairway," she said. "To this day, people talk about that."

When Haas and Speicher got wind that some of the county legislators were discussing converting the plantation house into satellite offices for themselves, she said the Friends redoubled their efforts.

While the newly organized volunteers were celebrating their first formal Christmas dinner at the mansion in December 1976, the original barn, slated for restoration that January, burned down in a fire set by local teens.

In the ashes of the old barn, Haas, Speicher and other members of the Laurel Art Guild and a representative from the South Laurel Recreation Council formed an ad hoc committee and started over.

The committee met privately with Gov. Blair Lee III; he and Comptroller Louis Goldstein agreed in 1978 to allocate state funds to rebuild the barn.

With funds secured to replace the barn, members of the Friends of Montpelier began lobbying for money and staff for the historic mansion. In 1980, the county approved funds for a major restoration of Montpelier.

In April 1985, the initial restoration of the planation house was finished and Montpelier Mansion opened as a house museum and rental facility.

Edward Day, of the Natural and Historical Resources Division of Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, said friends organizations are instrumental in working with the commission to preserve historic sites throughout the county, including the College Park Aviation Museum, Darnall's Chance House in Upper Marlboro, Riversdale and Surratt House.

"Volunteer organizations such as the Friends of Montpelier are indispensable to the operation and preservation of Prince George's County's historic sites and properties," he said. "I'm not sure we would have some of these sites without them."

"Soiree at the Snowdens" is Saturday, Dec. 17 from 5–8 p.m. at the mansion, 9650 Muirkirk Road. Call 301-377-7817 for reservations.

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