Mistress of Riversdale Mansion: In letters to her family, Rosalie Stier Calvert chronicled work being done to the 19th-century home she so loved.


I promise myself great satisfaction in completing all the projects of embellishment you planned to carry out here. When I walk in the garden, each tree and rose planted by your own hand is of interest to me. And I take pleasure in watching them grow and caring for them. I am writing this letter on the same table where I have seen Mama write so often -- I feel close to her. After all, every object here is dear to me because you used it.

When Rosalie Stier Calvert wrote the above to her father, Henri Joseph Stier, on June 28, 1803, she had been mistress of Riversdale, a plantation house near Bladensburg, for less than a month.

The unfinished house and 729 acres would become a gift from her father, who had just left for his homeland of Belgium with Rosalie's mother and sister. Rosalie ached to be reunited with them. She had only been in the United States since 1794, when her parents, aristocrats, fled Belgium, fearing the flame of the French Revolution would soon consume them. Her native tongue was French, and she thought of herself as European.

But in 1799, against her parents' wishes, she had married. Indeed she married well, to George Calvert, a descendant of the lords Baltimore. She had a daughter in 1800, and, when the Stiers departed, her son was only 6 months old. (She would eventually have nine children, five of whom would survive to adulthood.)

As much as she wanted to follow, she couldn't. Someday, she thought, someday she, George and the children would sail for Europe. But that day never came. She never saw the Stiers again. But she never lost contact. She corresponded constantly until she succumbed to fever in 1821.

Remarkably, her letters survived. A Belgian archivist discovered them in the 1970s while cataloging the Stier descendants' manuscript collection. In 1991, the Johns Hopkins University Press published the letters, which were edited and translated by Margaret Law Callcott, under the title "Mistress of Riversdale."

Remarkably, the house Riversdale also survived. It stayed in the family until 1887 but ended the century as a boarding house. In 1912 it was refurbished and remained a private home until donated in 1949 to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. After extensive restoration, the agency opened the house to the public on a regular basis three years ago.

So not only can you visit Rosalie's home, you can also visit it with Rosalie's words in your head. This is important because, while the structure is in fine shape, the interiors with one notable exception are sparsely furnished on the first floor and unfurnished upstairs. The walls largely have yet to be painted or papered appropriately, and the floors are bare.

We are very busy here. The dining room is almost finished -- the cornice is quite rich and pretty. The salon will take a lot more time -- it is not yet begun. Wouldn't it be good to order a parquet for the drawing room? I don't think it would cost much more here than a plank floor.

-- From a letter to her parents dated Sept. 16, 1803

In 1803 when Rosalie and family moved in, Riversdale was four years away from completion. The house would truly become an imposing structure, worthy of the wealthy European Henri Stier was. He largely designed the house himself, patterning it after a chateau he had built in Belgium. He had tried to enlist the services of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, but Latrobe's submission was late and deemed unsatisfactory. He did hire William Lovering, architect of the Octagon House in Washington.

Stier chose to build a five-part house -- like Homewood on the Johns Hopkins University campus -- with a large central block flanked by two smaller blocks (wings) and two connectors (hyphens) that join the wings to the main block.

He moved in with his wife, Marie Louise, in 1802, when only the eastern wing and hyphen were complete within. This was where the kitchen, family dining room and house servants' quarters were. The three formal rooms on the first floor of the central block were unfinished. The west wing was hardly started.

Henri intended the west wing to be a two-story gallery. The material possessions he was proudest of, which had accompanied him from Europe, were 63 old master paintings inherited by his wife. They included works by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck, Titian, Rembrandt and Jan Bruegel. Henri, in fact, was a direct descendant of Rubens.

When the Stiers sailed for Europe, they left the paintings for safekeeping with Rosalie until they could send for them. The condition of the collection would haunt Rosalie for the 13 years they would remain in her custody.

I understand perfectly about the five cases [of paintings] left here and I will follow your instructions exactly. Would it not be wise to open them up in order to air them out for several days? They are in the driest part of the house, but nonetheless last season was so humid that I found several things which I kept in cases completely mildewed.

-- From a letter to her father dated May 19, 1805

Of more immediate interest was work on the formal rooms, for n manor house was worth its salt without spaces in which to entertain fellow gentry. Along with the entry hall, the formal rooms are Riversdale's most noteworthy contributions to American domestic interiors.

Stier chose not to use the common center hall plan, where the hall bisects the house left and right. His entry is wide but shallow. The stairs are through the doors to the right; the kitchen wing is through the doors on the left.

The doors straight ahead open up on the salon with its dramatic triple-sash arched windows looking out onto the gardens. Wood and plaster work repeat the arches around the room. Shallow niches supported by carved pilasters are where the family portraits were to hang. To the left of the salon is the dining room, to the right the drawing room.

At the moment I am busy making curtains, slipcovers, etc. for the dining room. The curtains [are] of that blue striped English cloth you gave me, [trimmed] with a white fringe intermixed with small blue tassels; there is just enough material for the windows and the sofa. The cornices are white and gold, [and] I plan to paint the room yellow.

-- From a letter to her mother dated March 2, 1804

Rosalie was surely the mistress of the house. Not only was the house hers -- her father had had Calvert sign a prenuptial agreement to keep Rosalie's inheritance in her name -- but her word was law in day-to-day operations. With the advice of her family overseas, she was the house's interior designer and literally the manufacturer of many of its finished textiles.

She was also the commandant of the house staff. An 1810 census listed at Riversdale 12 whites (seven family members), 60 slaves (mostly field workers) and no free blacks. She wasn't averse to the buying and selling of slaves as needed.

A family like ours is like a little kingdom -- the ministers often fail to do their duty, and sometimes, too, the subjects become discontent and have to be replaced. We have three white servants -- a chambermaid, a gardener, and an overseer. Then [there is] a black prime minister who serves as chamberlain, confidant, "housekeeper," in short, as man-of-all-work. My household consists of 21 persons, including my children.

-- From a letter to her sister Isabelle van Havre, May 6, 1807

Except for brief inspections and careful removal of spots of mildew, the paintings stayed boxed up. Ironically, Rosalie would ask her father to buy her some paintings for the salon. ("I don't want them by the great masters -- those would be too expensive. I don't want to exceed $25 or $30 apiece -- as long as they are well painted.") Rosalie wrote to Isabelle in January 1806:

The second wing is still as it was when you left, and I am somewhat afraid I can hear your exclamation and your disapproval when I tell you that we plan to make it into a carriage house and a stable for our carriage horses. Of course, that won't be as pretty as a gallery for paintings -- [Papa's] original intention. We will plant lots of trees around the entry so that no one will notice it's a stable.

And so it was done. Perhaps Rosalie was the unheralded inventor of the attached garage. The restoration of Riversdale kept the stable doors on the western wall of the west wing. But today there is no stable inside. Ironically, Arkansas Sen. Thaddeus Caraway, who had bought the house in 1926, renovated the west wing after a fire destroyed its second floor, and he created a two-story ballroom there. This is what visitors see today, a perfect place to exhibit Henri Stier's masterpieces.

In the hyphen beside the ballroom was Calvert's office and library. It's a small but striking room. The period furnishings take a back seat to the French hand-blocked wallpaper that depicts a sequence of hunting scenes. Only one section is original to the house. It survived because a bookcase sat in front for many years. The rest of the paper came from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Also notable are a pair of built-in bookcases on both sides of the fireplace. Their arched doors are faux painted to look like mahogany.

We are going to wallpaper the staircase hall and the drawing room. The middle salon [will be] painted in imitation of marble with the pilasters and ornamentation white. The walls of the entry to the north are to be painted yellow and blue. The doors of the drawing room, salon, and the dining room are of mahogany.

-- From a letter to her father dated Sept. 26, 1806

Obviously, Rosalie was very determined to have the house just right. She even described to Isabelle in July 1806 what type of statue holding a lamp or a candle she wanted for the staircase newel post.

But her concern for the downstairs didn't seem to extend to the second floor of the central block where the bedrooms were. She does mention working on curtains for the middle bedroom in 1804. And she referred obliquely to her own bedroom (the southeast corner of the second floor) when she perfunctorily reported the birth of yet another child. She wrote thus to Isabelle on Dec. 3, 1808, after the birth of her fifth child, Charles Benedict:

My baby is a giant compared to the others. I haven't written you since his birth -- he came into the world the 23rd of August. Five days later I came down in order to see my flowers and [rose] bushes, and after the eighth day I had all my dinners downstairs. Mrs. Law and two young ladies had come the night before [the baby's arrival]. I told them that they would have to retire early since I had not slept well for two nights. The next day they were exceedingly surprised to find me in bed with a big baby boy. I had with me a woman [midwife] in whom I have the greatest confidence and an excellent doctor in the house (in case of mishap).

In addition to the family, her flowers and roses were a constant letter topic, particularly her father's tulip bulbs. She had grand garden plans, as exemplified in this letter to her brother Charles (who had returned to Europe before the others) on Dec. 10, 1808:

We work here still without pause. A lake just finished, which looks like a river on the southern side, gives a very beautiful effect and furnishes us at the same time with fish and ice for our ice-house.

The lake is long gone. Small 1950s Cape Cods occupy the site.

In August 1810, Rosalie again brought up the subject of the paintings, this time to Charles:

If they were unpacked, a number of curious, troublesome people would be drawn here, for the reputation of these paintings is extreme from one end of America to the other, and then I am afraid of their getting spoiled. So they are still in the cases in which you packed them, with the exception of a dozen small ones. We have hung them in the drawing room, which is always shut up unless we give large dinners and that doesn't happen often.

Finally Rosalie relented, but not until her father sent for the

paintings. For about two weeks in the spring of 1816 she put the extraordinary collection on display. According to the memoirs of the painter Rembrandt Peale printed in 1855:

For two weeks [the Calverts'] mansion at Bladensburg was the hospitable rendezvous of numerous visitors of taste and education, from different cities. It was a new and pleasant sight to witness such an animated assemblage of artists and amateurs -- members of Congress from the different states, merchants, lawyers and country gentlemen -- all engaged in discussing the merits of pictures and paintings.

In June 1816, 22 years after they first crossed the Atlantic but after only a very brief and restricted public display, the paintings returned to Europe.

If you go...

Getting there: To get to Riversdale, take Interstate 95 south to Washington. Take Interstate 495 east to Exit 23, Route 201, Kenilworth Avenue south. Continue for about 3 miles. Turn right on Riverdale Road. Proceed 1/2 mile. The mansion will be on your left.

Hours: Noon-4 p.m. Sundays. Weekday group tours available by appointment.

Information: Write to Facility Manager, Riversdale, 6005 48th Ave., Riverdale, Md 20737. Call (301) 864-0420 or, on Sundays, (301) 864-3521.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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