Week 8: Riversdale


From the Riversdale Historical Society’s website: The Riversdale Historical Society, a volunteer organization, works with staff from The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to preserve the cultural heritage of Riversdale and maintain the mansion as an historic house.

This month, I have visited four historic house museums. Riversdale (in Riverdale Park, Maryland) was the only one that had Christmas decorations all throughout the house itself, rather than just in one room, or just the grounds, or just the gift shop.

Riversdale was the turn-of-the-19th-century brainchild of Henri Joseph Stier, but his designs were mostly brought to fruition, maintained, and used by his daughter Rosalie Stier Calvert.  The guided tour focused primarily on the material culture: what the furniture and textiles and mantels were made of, what made them both impressive and functional, and the methods by which some aspects of the house were recently restored. I have to admit I kept looking at the holiday decorations more than the regular furniture and items!

Children's bedroom at Riversdale

Children’s bedroom at Riversdale

There was no Christmas tree, but there were simple adornments throughout the house. Poinsettias and garlands could be found in several places. On the mantels and in vases, there were arrangements of holly, pinecones, candles, apples, and oranges decorated with cloves. A room shared by children had a Nativity scene on the mantel, along with white socks hung in the old-fashioned sense of stockings-by-the-fireplace. The dining room table was set for a Christmas feast: a big turkey, topiary of apples and oranges, and multiple cakes, among other dishes.

My favorite thing about the house itself was all the nooks, crannies, mezzanines, and staircases. Exploring the entire house would be great fun; on the regular public tour route, I got the sense that there are secret rooms and passages everywhere. In addition to the grand, showy stairway, the house has several narrow, dangerous-looking staircases that were used by servants and enslaved workers.

Today’s historians are learning more about life in the house, both for the Calvert family and for their servants and slaves. A journal kept by an enslaved man named Adam Francis Plummer has shone light on the lives of Riversdale’s labor force during the time of Rosalie and George Calvert’s son Charles. Plummer lived at Riversdale as a slave, and in 1864, he was emancipated according to Maryland’s constitution.

It is also interesting to consider how gender and class interacted at Riversdale. Rosalie Stier Calvert enjoyed quite a bit of control over the house and financial autonomy for a woman of her time – something she was able to get away with because she was wealthy.

The museum has a quirky gift shop in the house’s basement, an outbuilding known as the Dependency, gardens, a vast lawn, and a visitor center with exhibit space. Besides decorating for Christmas, Riversdale has holiday events that include a Belgian-themed Christmas breakfast for families and a Twelfth Night ball.

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December’s blog theme is There’s No Place Like Historic Homes for the Holidays!

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Museums and Holidays, Weekly Museum Visits Part III and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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