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Montpelier restoration revealed 'hidden treasure'

An Oak Grove Restoration worker hand digs a 3-foot wide, 3-foot deep trench around the exterior foundation in 2013 as part of the moisture abatement project. Almost all trenching for the restoration project was done by hand so that archaeologists monitoring the work could access and document any archaeological artifacts discovered.
An Oak Grove Restoration worker hand digs a 3-foot wide, 3-foot deep trench around the exterior foundation in 2013 as part of the moisture abatement project. Almost all trenching for the restoration project was done by hand so that archaeologists monitoring the work could access and document any archaeological artifacts discovered. (Photo courtesy of M-NCPPC)

Spring at historic Montpelier Mansion in South Laurel has sprung the opening of a one-of-a-kind exhibit, "Hidden Treasure: Restoration and Archaeology at Montpelier," a display revealing 13 new discoveries unearthed during a 2013 restoration.

Most of the more than 4,000 pieces recovered from the mansion grounds have been cleaned, cataloged and sent to the Prince George's County Parks and Recreation's repository at Mount Calvert Historical and Archaeological Park in Upper Marlboro, according to Don Graham, the mansion's assistant facilities manager.

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Graham's wife, museum educator Edna Graham, said the exhibit answers questions about how the space at Montpelier Mansion was used and provides new insight into life there beyond its origin as a working plantation owned by one of Maryland's most prominent families.

Built by Major Thomas Snowden and his bride, Ann Ridgley, in the late 18th-century, the historic Georgian mansion was donated to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission by its last private owner in 1961.

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Montpelier Mansion opened as a house museum in 1985 under the management of Prince George's County Parks and Recreation.

An early restoration, funded by a grant from the state of Maryland in the early 1980s, recreated much of the interior of the National Historic Landmark to late-1700s to 1830 authenticity.

"Some of the newly discovered artifacts give us insight into time periods other than what we've interpreted in the house," Edna Graham said.

Don Graham said planning for the restoration took a full year and that creating the exhibit displays was a huge team effort.

Archaeologists from Prince George's County Parks and Recreation, and Paul P. Kreisa of Stantec Consulting Services, oversaw the excavations that preceded structural repair work performed by Oak Grove Restoration, a contractor specializing in historical conservation and preservation.

During the restoration, Graham said there was always a supervising archaeologist on site.

The interior of the house museum was temporarily closed, and most of the museum's programming was moved off-site for most of 2013.

Debbie Phillips, a neighbor to the historic site and president of the Friends of Montpelier, a volunteer organization that supports the mansion's preservation, said the process was exciting to watch.

"I walked the dog every day and could see the archaeologists at work," she said. "And sometimes Edna [Graham] would see me coming, and she would take me over and show me what was unearthed that day."

Phillips said her granddaughter, Jennifer Nottingham, who was 6 years old at the time, learned the word "archaeology," and loved watching the restoration. Jennifer was allowed to photograph some of the artifacts to take to kindergarten for show and tell.

According to Don Graham, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission exhibit designer Kathleen Addario headed the design team that planned the family-friendly interactive display columns.

Divided into four columns, the exhibit provides background information about the wealthy Snowden family and displays fragments of some of their household items.

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And some of the more modern objects — such as a beer bottle dating somewhere between 1899 and the 1930s and a tiny toy truck — open the imagination to activities that occurred after the descendants of the Snowden family left Montpelier in 1890.

Graphic displays mounted on the columns explain the difference between preservation and restoration, providing a glossary of oft-confused terms as well as diagrams and pictures of the restoration in progress.

The 13 artifacts encased in glass cases, separated by era and topic, sit dated but unidentified on shelves attached to the columns. If a visitor can't guess what an artifact is, he or she can open the flip-down panel located at child-level underneath to solve the puzzle.

At Saturday's exhibit opening, Su Zahng, of Ellicott City, said the "Hidden Treasure" exhibit drew him to his first visit to the mansion.

"I think Montpelier is a typical mansion from the era, but very well preserved," he said.

He said he particularly enjoyed getting such a close look at the artifacts in the exhibit.

Assistant facilities manager Don Graham said he feels very pleased with the arrangement of the artifacts, text and photos.

"I like the fact that we were able to link artifacts with the information on the panels to create an interactive, 3D format," he said.

Edna Graham said the artifacts exhibit is a particular favorite of Montpelier's staff.

Located in the library, "Hidden Treasure: Restoration and Archaeology at Montpelier" is open daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. through April 30 (closed Wednesdays). Admission is $3, $2 for seniors (60 and older), $1 for ages 6-18, and children under 5 admitted free. Admission includes a self-guided tour of the house museum and entry to the children's hands-on room, as well as special activities and lectures. For more information, go to history.pgparks.com.

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