100 – Rose Hill, 1806, south of Williamsport, MD
Outside of Williamsport, on Spielman Road, massive, white, wooden gates open to an avenue lined with ancient river maples. Well back from the road, this drive circles in front of a magnificent brick home. Huge boxwoods grow about the lawn; and the largest American basswood in the county, over 90 feet tall, stands before the house. The hip roof has a balustrade. The front façade has a central pavilion. The cornice has dentil molding. A beautiful semicircular fanlight, set in a brick arch, crowns the entrance with its double doors and sidelights. Windows have six-over-six sashes and are topped with flat keystone arches. Salmon-colored brick is laid in Flemish bond, and a decorative wooden belt course runs between floors. On the left is a lower, two-story wing set back from the main block. This is Rose Hill, probably the most photographed, well known home in Washington County.
(click on any photo for larger image)
Unlike most Washington County homes, which were vernacular, plain, serviceable structures, Rose Hill is a grand home built in the Adam style. Robert Adam was an English architect who traveled to Italy to study classical buildings. Following these visits, he and others popularized a number of design elements such as swags, garlands, urns and some geometrics, which they had seen in the ancient buildings. This refinement of the Georgian style became known as the Federal or English Adam style and was used extensively in this country from 1780 to 1820. The first American architects appeared during this period, and Benjamin Latrobe was among them. His work was in this style, and he was supposed to have known General Ringgold through common friends. At one time, Latrobe’s grandson Reverend Henry Onderdonk lived at Fountain Rock, a grand home on land that is now St. James School, and family tradition was that Latrobe had designed that building, which was similar in some aspects to Rose Hill.
Rose Hill, still a 210 acre working farm, was part of Conococheague Manor, the over 10,000 acre tract once held by General Samuel Ringgold. Ringgold sold a 665 acre parcel which included the Rose Hill acreage to Thomas Owen Williams of Prince George’s County in 1802. The deed describes Ringgold as a farmer and Williams as a planter. Williams paid the stupendous sum of £6,550 for this property, almost three times what land was bringing then. Charles Varle’s 1808 map shows a pictograph with a hip roof and a wing on the left marked with the name T. Williams, indicating that Rose Hill had been built by that year. Tradition says that Rose Hill was built in 1802 or 1803 by T. O. Williams’ son, Otho Williams. Another tradition names Benjamin H. Latrobe as the architect of Rose Hill, or at least a portion of it, but no written record yet found supports this.
The real story of Rose Hill’s origins lies in an 1819 Maryland Chancery Court case brought by Elizabeth Thomas Williams against her uncle Otho Williams contesting her grandfather’s will, which left a farm named Spring Valley to Otho. Depositions in this case describe Major Thomas Owen Williams, veteran of the Revolutionary War, as a wealthy businessman who lived in Georgetown. Major Williams had five sons and a daughter, William Berry, Thomas, Elisha, Jeremiah, Otho and Mary.
In the fall of 1801, Thomas Jr. went into business in Alexandria but showed little talent for this endeavor, incurred large debts and received loans from his father and other family members. Son Thomas married Elizabeth Thomas February 21, 1802, and they had a daughter Elizabeth Thomas Williams. Thomas’s wife died shortly after the birth, and the infant daughter was sent to live with her maternal grandmother.
Since Thomas Jr. was not succeeding in business, Major Williams proposed to find suitable farms for him and for his elder brother William Berry Williams; so that they could engage in agricultural pursuits and enjoy each other’s company. Thomas graciously accepted his father’s offer in December of 1802. The locks on the Potomac River at Great Falls had been opened that year, and apparently the elder Williams felt there would be economic opportunities upriver. He contracted with Samuel Ringgold to purchase property along the Potomac near the new town of Williams Port. William Berry Williams stated in a deposition that on his parcel, …there was an old log house on said part, and materials in part procured for building a new house, which was afterwards built at the expense of his father, and that the new house was finished before the division took place between him and his brother Thomas. Samuel Ringgold testified, …the improvements on the same respectively were of very little value, and about equal in value on each. The location of this land, near the river and the town, with its potential for shipping ventures, justified the cost.
The case documents go on to say the Williams family took possession of the farm about April 1, 1803. It was divided between the brothers about that time. William Berry called his portion White Hall Farm and Thomas named his Spring Valley.
One of the chain carriers for the survey crew, James Denoon, testified that during the division of the land, Thomas voiced dissatisfaction. His father chided him saying, Thomas murmur not, the land is not yours, tis mine. If you don’t like it say nothing about it. However, his father did agree to build and pay for a house comparable to William Berry’s and suggested a small house with two rooms and an entry hall. Thomas designed a large brick home in the Robert Adam style which he presented to his father. Major Williams rejected this plan in strong terms one witness testified. He felt he could not afford such an expensive home and that the size of the farm did not justify it.
Thomas returned to Washington County and began construction anyway. Several of Thomas’s brothers and the house builders testified that by the time Major Williams discovered what his son was doing, it was too late to alter the plans without losing a lot of money. When Thomas then presented plans to add another wing, his father responded that if he built a second wing to the house, …it would fly away. The other hyphen and dependency were never built.
Frederick Stover testified that the house was begun on April 18, 1806 and finished in March 1809. Richard Bartlett, the building superintendent, testified the cost of the house was about $8,500 while William Berry thought it to be between $6,000 and $7,000. Adam Snider, one of the builders, testified that when he asked Thomas for money, Thomas would reply, You must wait until I go to my father’s where I expect to get money, and on my return you shall have some. When he returned, Adam was paid.
Thomas Williams died in 1810. His estate was settled for £2,350, which was applied to his debts. His father paid his remaining debt of $2,000 to $3,000. Major Williams then asked his son Otho to move to Thomas’s house, and Otho testified that when he arrived, the house was finished except for inside painting. When Major Williams died in 1818, Otho inherited Spring Valley, later called Rose Hill. Thomas’s daughter, Elizabeth Thomas Williams, lost her suit. The court decided that Major Williams had never promised to give the land to her father and testimony amply demonstrated how much he had invested in the farm and the house and how much Thomas owed him. Otho remained at Rose Hill until his death in 1869.
Rose Hill is bisected by a broad entrance hall that opens at either end through identical entrances, each with double doors and the same lovely fan and sidelights. This entrance hall is dominated by a hanging staircase that is cantilevered from the north wall, then curls, suspended from the ceiling, in front of the rear door like a great drum. An arch, held by reeded pilasters that are wound with carved ribbon detail, divides the hall and frames the staircase. Six-panel cherry doors, with Adam overdoors that are decorated with carved bas-relief urns, eagles and swags, lead to the rooms on either side. A Waltz tall case clock stands sentinel beneath the fourteen-and-a-half foot ceiling.
There are now two drawing rooms on the south side of this grand hall. The larger front room was originally the dining room, and it had a door in the south wall that led down a flight of steps to the kitchen. This door is now closed and has become a cupboard. The back room is still called the “after supper room” and was a place for gentlemen to drink brandy and smoke cigars. The original drawing room and a music room were on the other side of the central hall. The drawing room has become the dining room, and the music room has been converted into a modern kitchen. To do this, a new door was added between it and the dining room. The fireplace was closed as well. Interior shutters, edge grain pine floors, chair rail and the lovely overdoors, carved in differing motifs, continue throughout the first floor. The mantelpieces in both the dining room and the after supper room are superbly carved Adam pieces.
The magnificent staircase leads to a second level with the same floor plan as the first. Woodwork is simpler, with no overdoors or interior shutters, but the rooms are still imposing with beautiful proportions and twelve-foot ceilings. The three bedrooms have fireplaces with identical mantels whose fluted pilasters support flaring shelves. The small room on the north side above the kitchen has been converted into bathrooms, and its fireplace has also been closed. In all, four fireplaces have been closed; but eight remain operable throughout the house.
A full basement beneath the central block of the house follows the same plan as the two upper floors. It has high ceilings and a modern concrete floor. Windows with horizontal wooden bars, typical of early construction in this area, open into both the east and west walls at ground level. The foundation is stone as are the huge interior cellar walls that support the upper floors. This massive support structure suggests that the interior walls have been constructed of brick, a building technique used in fine early homes for protection against fire as well as for stability.
The cellar is entered from the wing and through a broad batten door that opens under the rear porch. This three-and-a-half foot wide door is hung on wrought iron strap hinges, but doors to side rooms off the basement hall were hung on wooden hinges. Pairs of these hinges can still be seen, but they can no longer carry the weight of the large doors.
The two-story wing originally contained the kitchen on its lower level and living areas for servants above. This wing is the most altered section of the house. The fireplace in the old kitchen has been reduced in size, no longer the great service fireplace with an arched brick lintel. The walls are paneled with mahogany boards and the floor is brick.
Rose Hill remained in the Williams family until 1916. It passed from Thomas Owen Williams to his son Otho. Extensive research by Mary Vernon Mish, a local historian, found no connection between this Otho Williams and General Otho Holland Williams, the founder of Williamsport. …If there is a connection, it was definitely not in any immediate generation…, wrote Mrs. Mish in a 1951 letter.
The property passed to Otho’s daughter Mary Emma, who did not marry, then to her niece and the niece’s daughter. Over time, the family made changes in the home. They replaced several of the original mantels with marble ones, painted the house yellow and enclosed a bathroom on the roof of the rear porch.
Millard Kershner, a farmer with eight children, purchased Rose Hill in 1916 and farmed it until his death in 1944. Seven of Kershner’s children did not marry, and they lived together at Rose Hill. It was the Kershners who enlarged the front porch so that more people could sit on it. Kershner’s eldest child Susan, then a retired teacher, purchased the family home from his estate and lived there for seven years with her two surviving sisters. She converted the old servants’ quarters to a tenant house and had a tenant farmer take care of the land, but the house became too much for the elderly sisters. Rusell Eldridge would come from Washington occasionally to dicker with Miss Susan about a price for the place, and one day he arrived when she was on a ladder washing the fanlight over the front entrance. She just said, Sold.
The Eldridges never moved to Rose Hill. For twenty years, he and his wife worked at its restoration and used it as a weekend home. The yellow paint was hand-sanded from the salmon-colored bricks. The marble mantelpieces were removed and replaced with antique Adam mantels. The door from the dining room to the original kitchen was closed and a new wall built between this kitchen wing and the main block of the house. The bathroom was removed from over the rear porch and the portico recreated. The altered front porch was removed. Two kitchens were built: one in the old kitchen area just off the new screened-in porch and the other in the music room. By doing this, the Eldridges could live in part of the house while working on the rest.
In 1962, the Eldridges were invited to be on the first Maryland House and Garden Pilgrimage, and Jane Hershey agreed to sell tickets there because she wanted to see the interior of the house. The house was gorgeous; the grass was like velvet; everything was perfect. Jane still can’t believe that, at the end of the day, she was so bold as to ask the Eldridges if they would like to sell their house. Mr. Eldridge said he might, if he could get a lot in Georgetown on which to build a little Rose Hill. With permission, Jane brought her husband the next day to look at the house; and, for the next two years, the Hersheys courted the Eldridges with flowers, candy and wine. In 1964, they purchased Rose Hill. Little has been changed, for they loved it just the way it was. The kitchen was redone so that the sitting area was blocked from the stove to protect the four Hershey children and a swimming pool was added.
Much about Rose Hill remains a mystery, but the origin of the name is known. At one time, before the trees around the circle grew so large, there was a rose garden on the knoll in that circle, with a fountain in its center. Miss Susie Kershner remembered it as a lovely fountain with a bowl-like bottom and an urn at the top. It was not in working condition when the Kershners bought the farm, but it had been fed from a spring at the south end of the property near Falling Waters Road. The fountain and the rose bed are gone, replaced by boxwoods; but Rose Hill continues to thrive, a well loved home and an important part of our county’s history. Jane Hershey treasures her home and does all she can to preserve it. The land has been put in an agricultural preservation district, and the house is in a local historic preservation district as well as being in the National Register of Historic Places.
Note: Sandra Izer researched the Chancery case in this article.