Step through the doors of Riversdale House Museum and you step back in time. Whether you go on a tour, attend a special event or simply pick up the book written by the original owner of the home, you will feel transported to a time in U.S. history marked by Federal-era architecture, regency balls, and the war of 1812 and beyond.
In our effort to highlight all of the best museums in Maryland, we spoke with Leila Farrer, Education Assistant at the Riversdale House Museum to dig into what makes Riversdale House Museum worth a visit.
Table of Contents
Where is the museum located?
Riversdale House Museum, 4811 Riverdale Road, Riverdale Park, MD 20737 (Prince Georges County)
What topics does the Riversdale House Museum cover?
Riversdale House Museum tells the story of Rosalie Stier Calvert, who in 1794 immigrated to America from Flanders at age 16 with her aristocratic family.
Riversdale House History
In 1800, her father, foreseeing no return to Europe due to the Napoleonic Wars, purchased 729 acres of land outside the thriving port of Bladensburg, Maryland, and began construction of Riversdale.
In 1803, the family did return to Flanders, all except Rosalie, who had by that time married the planter George Calvert, grandson of the 5th Lord Baltimore. The Calverts, who kept the federal-style manor house, had nine children and were important members of society in the Washington DC area.
Mistress of Riversdale
Rosalie wrote home to her parents and siblings throughout her life and her letters have been almost entirely preserved. They provide vivid detail of life in the Federal era, the design and decoration of the house, politics of the day, the War of 1812, and much more. These letters are consolidated in the book, “Mistress of Riversdale.”
Riversdale House Labor
Riversdale ran on the labor of dozens of enslaved workers and paid servants, who worked both in the house and in the fields of the vast estate.
One enslaved family we know much about is the Plummers.
Adam Francis Plummer spent most of his life at Riversdale and left behind a diary that provides a wealth of information on the lives of the enslaved during the 19th century. The family’s story includes several escape attempts, long separation, and finally reunion and emancipation.
Riversdale House Museum interprets this story alongside that of the Calvert’s.
What is your museum’s claim to fame?
The house, built between 1801 and 1807, is a prime example of Federal-style architecture, which lasted from about 1790-1820. Much of the structure is original and extremely well preserved.
University or Maryland Connection
Riversdale is know as the founder’s house for the University of Maryland. One of the Calvert’s children, Charles Benedict, was a leader in 19th century agricultural innovation. He founded the Maryland Agricultural College in 1858, which became the University of Maryland, College Park.
In the 1930s, Riversdale was home to Hattie Caraway, the first female senator to be elected in her own right.
National Historic Landmark Status
Riversdale was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
What is your favorite exhibit or artifact in the museum?
The Riversdale staff loves the historic wallpaper in George Calvert’s study. The wallpaper wraps around the entire room and shows a stag hunting scene called the “La Chasse de Compiègne”. It was produced by Jacquemart & Benard between 1812-1815.
The portion original to Riversdale lay hidden behind a bookcase until restoration began in the late 1980s. The remaining wallpaper panels were acquired from the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they hung between 1925-1976.
Such wallpapers were block printed on large squares, one block for each color in a panel. This design would have required about 3,000 blocks.
What kinds of special exhibits and events do you host throughout the year?
Riversdale hosts a range of both free and paid programs for children and adults.
Some of our most popular programs include:
- Belgian Fall Festival, put on in partnership with the Embassy of Belgium
- The Battle of Bladensburg Encampment, a day of War of 1812 reenactments
- Tavern Night, a historic foodways event with chantey singing
- Twelfth Night Ball, a regency-style dance
- Jazz on the Lawn series
The museum also puts on many smaller events in between these signature programs.
Riversdale hosts boutique exhibits in the historic house. Our most recent exhibits have explored two hundred years of weddings in the Calvert family, Federal era fashion, 19th century decorative clocks, photos from the Goddard Camera Club, and an art show with elementary school students.
Are there guided tours available?
Guided mansion tours are available on Fridays and Sundays from 12:15-3:15 pm, every half hour. Tours are available on a walk-in basis.
Tours outside of regular hours and group tours should be scheduled by appointment.
All tours are held in English, with a printed Spanish tour brochure available.
Self-guided tours are occasionally available with room docents during events.
How much time should someone plan to spend at the museum?
Visitors should plan on spending one to one and a half hours, including a guided tour of the house and time to explore the Visitor Center exhibits and gardens.
What should someone bring with them and what items are not allowed in the museum?
Visitors do not need to bring anything with them. No food or beverages are allowed inside the house, though there is space on the grounds for picnicking.
Is photography allowed inside (without flash)?
What should parents of young children know before visiting the museum?
Kids are always welcome at the museum! Parents should know that most of the spaces in the historic house are tight, so kids should always be aware of their surroundings to protect historic objects.
Note that the second floor of the house is accessible by stairs only and is not suited for strollers.
The rooms all include touch objects for kids and there is a kids architecture activity booklet available for the grounds. Riversdale hosts many special programs for kids and girl scouts throughout the year.
What’s the coolest item for sale in the gift shop?
The book, “Mistress of Riversdale”, edited by Margaret Law Callcott, is our signature gift shop item. The book compiles Rosalie Stier Calvert’s letters home to her parents and siblings in Europe.
The letters have been translated and interpreted from their original French and are readable and fascinating.
Is there a museum cafe or restaurant?
We do not have a cafe on site.
What should teachers planning a field trip know before reaching out to you?
Riversdale offers five field trip options for elementary school students that cover a range of topics, including foodways, the 19th century workforce, the lives of 19th century children, and globalization and trade.
Riversdale also offers a program for children with special needs.
Program for middle and high school students can be adapted upon request.
All field trips cost $2-$5 and last 1-2 hours. Programs include a short tour of the historic house and several hands on activities. Learn more about our field trips here.
What else should a visitor know before visiting?
The Riversdale grounds are open every day between dawn and dusk. All dogs must be leashed. Picnicking is encouraged, but please take all your trash with you to preserve the beauty of the grounds for all.
What are your normal days and hours of operation?
Mansion tours are available on Fridays and Sundays from 12:15-3:15 pm, every half hour.
Visitor Center exhibits are open Monday-Friday, 9 am-5 pm, and Sundays, 12-3:30 pm.
Tours outside of regular hours can be scheduled by appointment.
Is the museum accessible?
The main floor and basement are accessible with a lift. The upper floor of the house is only accessible by stairs due to historic compliance.
Does the museum have a bag check or coat room?
Is there parking available?
Yes, there are two parking lots on site, which are both free.
Is there an admission fee?
- $5 adults
- $4 seniors and groups of 10 or more
- $2 students
- Free for children 4 & under.
Riversdale is a part of the Blue Star program: Members of the military with ID receive free admission between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Tickets can be purchased in the Visitor Center. Cash, credit, and checks are accepted.