Historic Structures

Montpelier - Snowden House, Laurel Maryland

Date added: January 4, 2019 Categories: Maryland House Mansion

Montpelier is by far the grandest of the many Snowden family homesteads built in the Laurel area from the time of the first Snowden settler, ca. 1690, to the late-18th century. A wealthy, Quaker family, they developed and dominated the local economy for over a century. Richard Snowden, later referred to as "Richard the immigrant," came from Birmingham, England, to Maryland ca. 1658. He later received grants of land in this area, settling on a portion of it (located in the current Howard County) ca. 1690. His residence was known as "Birmingham Manor" for his original home. Upon his death, the Birmingham Manor property passed on to his son, Richard Snowden II, also known as Captain Richard Snowden. Richard continued to increase the family landholdings here until they totalled approximately 27,000 acres spanning Prince Georges, Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Howard counties. It was Richard II that started the Snowden or Patuxent Iron Works in 1735, was the first iron works in the state. His property upon his death was passed on to his son, Richard III, often referred to as the "Iron Master." From him, that portion of the extensive Snowden family holdings on which Montpelier was to be erected passed onto one of his sons, Thomas.

Thomas Snowden I (1722-1770) was, for many years, credited with the construction of Montpelier, originally believed to have been erected ca. 1740. However, architectural historians now believe that, based on the style and detailing of the house, it was built between 1770-1785. The two firebacks in the house give the date of 1783, which may have been the official year of completion of the main block of the house. The hyphenated wings were added later, in 1794-1795.

The main block of Montpelier is a classic Georgian form, displaying all the symmetry and detailing of the early period. To this was added the hyphenated wings, creating a five-part plan, palladian plan. The five-part plan (especially with the polygonal bays) was a later Georgian feature, rarely seen before the American Revolution. This final structure represents one of a handful of grand, high-style five-part Georgian homes built by the wealthy planter and merchant class in Maryland and Virginia between 1765 and the time of the American Revolution.

This addition and the fine interior detailing of Montpelier were credited as the work of William Buckland, an English-born and trained architect who came to America in 1755 to complete George Mason's home, Gunston Hall. He came to Annapolis in 1771 were he is credited for the finish work or joinery of Whitehall, Tulip Hill, Chase-Lloyd and Hammond-Harwood houses. Buckland's unmistakable styling and rare knowledge of the latest English styles (Georgian, Palladian-influenced, Adamesque) clearly identify his work. This is why, although formal documentation has not been found, Buckland has been credited with the hyphenated wings and interior detailing of Montpelier, equalled only in residences such as the Hammond-Harwood house. However, the accounts for the construction of the wings dates them to 1794-1795, twenty years after Buckland's untimely death. In addition, by the 1790's others would have been adopting the latest English styles which Buckland introduced in the late-1760s to early-1770s.

Among the papers in the Administration of Thomas Snowden's estate is a lengthy inventory of all the materials of construction, "to the amount of the main building ($457.44)... the kitchen and entrie ($206.12)... the second wing and entrie ($235.42) ..." There was also mention of materials for the garden house (framing and weatherboarding, windows, door, shingles, cornice board); stable, carriage house, tobacco house, overseer's house and cedar posts and gates for the garden. These records are dated yearly beginning the 1794 and ending with 1796. Thus, it can be assumed that the interior finish of the main block or "main building," and the wings and their connecting hyphen or "entrie" as well as the garden house, fencing and other outbuildings were constructed between 1794-1796.

Major Thomas Snowden married Ann Ridgely, daughter of a wealthy Anne Arundel County family. It has been suggested that their combined wealth paid for the elaborate construction of Montpelier following Major Thomas Snowden's inheritance in 1770. A fireback, undoubtedly from the Snowden Iron Works, which appears in two rooms, gives the initials T A S (Thomas & Ann Snowden) and the date, 1783, presumably the completion date. His non-Quaker marriage may also help explain the elaborate ornament of the house, a contradiction to Quaker tenets. Supposedly, their wedding was so elaborate that he was temporarily refused admission to the Quaker meeting; although his military rank also suggests that he did not adhere rigidly to his religion. The plantation was said to have been named for Ann Snowden's home. Among the distinguished guests of Montpelier were George Washington in May of 1787, en route to Philadelphia to attend the Constitutional Convention, and on his return trip in September; Martha Washington in 1789 on her way to New York to attend her husband's inauguration; and Abigail Adams, who stayed here in 1800 on her way to join President Adams in Washington.

Thomas died in 1803 and Montpelier passed to his wife (who continued to live here until her death) and later to their son, Nicholas, who had, by Thomas' will, received the remainder of the Montpelier tract (New Birmingham Manor). The administration of Thomas Snowden's estate paints a picture of a wealthy, landed gentleman farmer. His estate included hundreds of acres in three counties. His Prince Georges County plantations required the work of 141 slaves or "negroes" (listed in the inventory). The account of plantation produce on hand at the time of his death included 50,000 pounds of tobacco, 780 bushels of Indian corn and hundreds more bushels of oats, wheat, rie (sic.) and straw. Among the livestock were 163 head of black cattle, 378 sows and 77 hogs, 164 sheep and 64 horses. Virtually selfsufficient, the estate also included blacksmith and carpenters tools, surveyor's instruments, and 270 yards of cotton cloth "from the loom."

Nicholas Snowden, in addition to his interest in the Snowden Iron Works, was also responsible for the construction of a grist mill in 1811, the largest in the county and the only impact of the Industrial Revolution on the landscape of the county. This was converted into a textile mill in 1824. Nicholas died in 1831, but by 1840 growth around the mill (attributed in part to the coming of the B&O Railroad) created the beginnings of the town of Laurel, Prince George's only industrial-based city. The estate following the death of Nicholas, although not as extensive as his fathers, included an inventory of sixty-eight "negroes" and crops "growing" or "on the ground" of tobacco, corn, oats and potatoes. The inventory of his personal estate is an extensive list of fine furniture, and china, glassware and silver, reflecting the country home of extreme wealth.

After his death, his extensive landholdings became the property of his widow, Elizabeth, and their children Anne E. Hall, Thomas J. (deceased), Louisa Capron, Julianna, Adeline, Edward, De Wilton, Henry, Eliza, Emily, Nicholas and Arthur Snowden. In 1836 an equity case was filed (#911 Chancery March Term), with Elizabeth Snowden, Anne E. Hall and Louisa Capron and her husband, Horace, as complainants vs. Julianna and her husband (as of that year), Theodore Jenkins, and those of the heirs under age. The purpose of the complaint was to equitably subdivide the "dwelling plantation" and to sell and distribute the proceeds of other landholdings. Snowden*s holdings consisted of well over 4,000 acres in Prince Georges, Anne Arundel and Montgomery Counties, as well as property in the City of Washington. Thus, each of the eleven children received a tract of land of approximately 400 acres, with the exception of Julianna who received Lot No. 1 on which rested the mansion (all Lots were subject the dower rights of the widow, Elizabeth).

Thus, in 1835 Montpelier became the property of his daughter, Julianna, who had married a Baltimore doctor, Theodore Jenkins, that same year. After Dr. Jenkins' death in 1866, Julianna continued to manage the plantation, residing here until her death in 1883. Upon her death, Julianna willed Montpelier to her two unmarried daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, and their younger brother, Arthur (son Francis received a separate tract) . Recognizing the status of women in her day, her will specifically stated that Arthur not be allowed to sell or otherwise distribute the property without the consent of his sisters. These heirs, the last of the Snowden family to own Montpelier, sold it just a few years later, in January of 1888.

Montpelier passed through a number of hands during the late-19th and early 20th century. It was owned by William P. & Isabella Davis (1888-91) and Sarah D. and Martin Chollar (1891-94), of Prince Georges County. Montpelier then may have served as a second home for its next two owners were from New York City (as cited on the deed at the time of purchase and sale) , Josephine Taylor from February 1894 through December 1896, and then by Louis Blakeman, from 1894 until 1901. It was then purchased by Edmund Pendleton, an author, and his wife whose primary residence was in Bar Harbor, Maine. They, however, divided their time between Maine, Montpelier and Washington, D.C. Mr. Pendleton passed away while in Washington in 1910. Among its many owners was Emmanuel Havenith, a minister to the United States from Belgium, who added the kitchen and servants wing during his ownership from 1916 to 1918. Mr. Havenith, as stated in a letter written by Eleanor Fitzgibbon, had the interior plaster work done in the dining room and library (presumably the wings) at a cost of $10,000.

Montpelier was then purchased by Miss Eleanor Fitzgibbon of Mt. Kisco, New York. She operated a dairy farm here, known as "Montpelier Manor Farms," and imported "Sybils Gamboge" and "Raleigh" bloodline cattle. Although the Haveniths had made additions and repairs to the house, they had neglected the property. According to Miss Fitzgibbon in her letter of February 1926, ".. . .in 1918.... the place was little better than a wilderness. There were no buildings except the house, and only about ten acres of tillable land, the balance of the farm would have put Brer Rabbit's briar patch to shame, and the beautiful house was like a pearl in a pigsty in such a setting." Miss Fitzgibbon added outbuildings including an architect-designed barn, located on the site of the original barn, and put into cultivation 120 acres (Fitzgibbon letter, 1926). Despite her hard work. Miss Fitzgibbon went into default and more than once the property went to equity. Monies from various relatives kept the farm afloat for many years. However, it was eventually transferred to trustees for sale. A notice for its sale which appeared in the Laurel Leader gave the following description: "The property is one of the finest country seats in Maryland, located near Contee Station.... and situated on the Patuxent River. Improvements consist of a magnificent old Colonial brick residence, containing many rooms, a fine new stable suitable for cows and other buildings. Property has been used as a dairy farm and is in a high state of cultivation".

For many years Montpelier was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Breckinridge Long who purchased the property from the trustees in 1928. Mr. Long was a diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state under Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. A porch which extended the length of the facade (probably added by Fitzgibbon) was removed. After the death of the Longs in 1958, Montpelier passed on to their daughter, Mrs. Christine Willcox of Chevy Chase. The house then stood empty.

Wishing to preserve it, however, the Willcoxes made possible its conveyance to the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission in December of 1961. Montpelier is now being used as a house museum and conference center, with an on-site caretaker, and is rented out for meetings and special events.