Maryland Journal

The predecessor of the McMansion

Arundel group unearths opulent rubble of 1700s home

September 24, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

DEALE -- Anne Arundel County archaeologists knew they were looking for one of 18th-century Maryland's rich and famous.

Samuel Chew was a well-connected Quaker planter and merchant, and his home on a knoll above the Chesapeake Bay was an early landmark, used by ship captains to guide them into the tobacco port of Herrington, on Herring Bay.

But no one expected this.

Months of digging to uncover the foundation walls of the Chew House have revealed one of the largest, most opulent Colonial homes in the Chesapeake region during the early 18th century.

Rubble lifted from the cellar hole speaks of elaborate, molded brickwork, polished marble and hand-painted imported tiles.

Most amazing of all, the 2 1/2 -story, hip-roofed mansion appears to have been bigger than the original Governor's Palace at Williamsburg, Va. - an extraordinary 66 feet on each side, says county archaeologist Al Luckenbach.

"We weren't aware we were looking for ... the grandest house on the Chesapeake," Luckenbach said. "Somehow this has fallen out of the tribal memory."

Tobacco and slave labor made the community that grew up around Herring Bay one of the wealthiest in the Colonies. In building their homes, the planters were "trying to demonstrate their success, and Chew seems to have outdone them all," Luckenbach said.

But none of their research had yielded the home's dimensions, or contemporary descriptions of its grandeur. All they had were long probate lists of Chew's personal property, and a tiny sketch on a 1732 map showing a house with two stories, a central doorway, at least two chimneys and a cupola.

"That is normal, for these things not to have much of a record, even something as grand and expensive as this," said Edward A. Chappell, director of architectural research at Colonial Williamsburg. But the scale and complexity of the Chew House is extraordinary for the time and place.

"The vast majority of people at that date were still living in wooden houses with earth-fast frames - posts that went into the ground," Chappell said. "They might be multiroom, particularly if it were a fairly successful planter. But the majority are not brick, or very survivable."

The Chew House burned in 1772 and vanished from local memory. Family members left for prominent positions in Delaware and Philadelphia.

"People had heard of Samuel Chew, but as far as the house being here, I don't think anybody had any idea," said Lois Nutwell of the Deale Area Historical Society, a volunteer on the dig for much of the summer.

Luckenbach's search was part of Anne Arundel County's Lost Towns Project, which has included excavations at London Town on the South River, once Maryland's premier tobacco port; the discovery of Providence, a Protestant outpost in Catholic Maryland on the north side of the Severn River; and the search for Herrington, the vanished tobacco port on Herring Bay.

Last spring, John Kille, assistant director for the Lost Towns Project, and field director Shawn Sharpe, set out to dig test pits at likely spots above the bay that seemed to match the Chew House site on the 1732 map. Their second attempt paid off, and they began finding Dutch and German ceramics of the right age, and traces of a large structure.

"We have delft! And Rhenish! And a suspicious stone wall! And it's in the right place!" they told Luckenbach via cell phone.

The site was an overgrown farm off Fairhaven Road east of Route 2 overlooking the bay. The owners were happy to cooperate, so long as the location, and their name, were not made public.

They knew the farm had some history. They showed the archaeologists the low wall, built with a shelly limestone called caliche, native to the Caribbean. And they pointed out where plows always kicked up brick fragments and oyster shell.

In the weeks and months that followed, Kille, Sharpe and Luckenbach enlisted bands of interns from area colleges, volunteers from the Deale Area Historical Society and financial help from the Four Rivers Heritage Area. They began looking for the home's "footprint," and confirmation of its age.

The Puritan Chews came to Arundel from Jamestown in 1649 or 1650, invited by Lord Baltimore as part of an effort to make his Maryland colony look less Catholic in the wake of the political and religious turmoil of the English Civil War.

The family converted to Quakerism and began assembling vast land holdings, profiting from tobacco and the labor of what by 1738 were as many as 140 slaves.

Hacking through the undergrowth, and slicing into the drought-hardened soil, the team began turning up ceramics they could date. They pointed to a period between the 1690s and 1710.

Probate records suggested Samuel Chew - the third in a line of five Samuel Chews - built the place after the death of his father (Chew Two, as the archaeologists refer to him) in 1718.

Despite that uncertainty, they seemed to have the right place. Overgrown now, it would have had a clear view of the bay in an era when most trees had been cleared.

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