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

September 22, 1996|By Scott Ponemone | Scott Ponemone,SUN STAFF

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.

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