Top Places For

Historic Architecture in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed: Marvelous Examples of Bygone Eras


In the greater Chesapeake Bay area, we are fortunate to have excellent examples of 17th and 18th century architecture to enjoy within an easy daytrip’s distance. Here, we’re featuring nine examples most representative of the times and styles of our region.

However – before you read further – a little background information on the dominant architectural styles may be of help.

Georgian Architecture – William Brown House, Hampton Mansion, Stratford Hall Plantation, Montpelier, Carlyle House (Georgian-Palladian) – is the name given to the set of architectural styles that dominated between 1714 and 1830. The colonies were still controlled by Great Britain and most wealthy residents wanted to mimic the style so fashionable in London. The style was named after the four British monarchs – all Georges – who ruled during that period. It is characterized by symmetry and proportioned balance. Georgian homes are typically symmetrical and rectangular, or “four over four” homes, meaning two rooms deep, two stories high and two rooms on either side of a staircase. There can also be chimneys on either side of the house. Other notable features include iron forged hardware, split shingles, a front porch usually supported by columns you’d typically see in Greek and Roman architecture, and a steeply pitched roof. Any ornamentation is kept simple and in the classic tradition. While a wooden exterior remained very common in the colonies because it was more affordable, stone and brick became more common, often covered with stucco.

Federal Architecture – Riversdale House Museum, Dumbarton House – dominated the American architectural landscape from roughly 1783 to 1840.  It evolved from Georgian, its colonial predecessor. When the United States declared its independence from Britain and after the Revolutionary War, Americans wanted to separate themselves from anything British-related, including homes. This meant the colonial style was quickly falling out of favor.  Federal style – also known as Federalist style – was named after the Federalist party – the most dominant party in American politics at the time. Federal has the same layout as Georgian, however, Federal architecture is more ornate, with rounded or arched windows and elaborate moldings. These homes tend to be taller and narrower than colonial homes, and may have oval or circular shaped rooms. Federal homes also tend to be made of brick. Not just popular with wealthy families, Federal homes were widely embraced by many Americans who saw them as a reflection of their patriotism.


Historic London Town & Gardens, William Brown House – c.1760
Prominently situated on a hill overlooking the South River, the William Brown House is an exquisite example of Georgian architecture. Brown, a carpenter, ferry master, and tavern keeper, used fashionable header bond brick work on all four outer walls – an extremely expensive building technique – making it the only known structure of its kind in the country. The spacious and welcoming first floor tavern and corner rooms were always full of locals and traders, there while loading or emptying their ships in the busy port of London on the river below. Today, the tables are set as though they would be filled with chatting patrons any minute. The Browns and their children resided in the all-brick house. And while they rented shared bedroom space to travelers, they also rented private rooms by the week to tobacco factors who used the rooms to strike deals with the local tobacco farmers. These are all fully restored, replete with period furnishings and decorative pieces.

William Brown House, Debra Driscoll photo


Hampton National Historic Site – c.1790
Located on a bucolic 62.5-acre estate just north of Towson, Hampton Mansion is a marvelous example of Georgian architecture, with its symmetrical design. The home itself is a very impressive, three-story structure connected to smaller wings by hallways called hyphens. And, while many Georgian style homes might have six over six multi-pane windows, Hampton features twelve over twelve, flooding each room with light. Master carpenter, Jehu Howell is credited with much of the design, but input from owner Captain Charles Ridgely is said to have been influenced by the stately Castle Howard in Yorkshire, England, featuring a very large, octagonal cupola. The structure’s exterior is constructed of stone from a quarry on the Ridgely property. It was then stuccoed over and scored to resemble blocks of limestone. Its pink hue is a result of the iron oxide in the stuccoing compound. Hampton was designed with a multitude of intricate architectural features that perfectly display the beauty of the Georgian style.


Riversdale House Museum – c.1807
Located in Riverdale Park, Riversdale House Museum is a very well-preserved, elegant, Federal style home. The five-part, stucco-covered brick mansion features a two-story central structure and two, one-and-half story end pavilions that are linked to the main house by hallways called hyphens. The north porch has a dairy storage area beneath. A low brick basement story is lighted by fixed, four-light windows. The south, or garden porch, has a hipped roof supported by four Tuscan columns. Triple-sash windows open onto the porch, permitting passage from the porch to the center parlor. Both porches have floors of black, white and pink marble.

Riversdale, Ryan Sullivan Photo



Dumbarton House – c.1799
Located in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C., Dumbarton House is one of a very few stately brick homes in the District to survive those days when the country and its capital city were new. The design of the house reflects a time when styles were shifting from traditional Georgian to Federal, which became the norm for architecture in the area. Visiting the property even now, you will get to see one of the finest examples of Federal architecture in the U.S. In addition, Dumbarton House features an extensive collection of furniture, paintings, textiles, silver, and ceramics which were made and used in our country’s formative years.

Dumbarton House


Frederick Douglass National Historic Site – c.1855-1859
Set on 8.5 acres of land in Anacostia, Cedar Hill became the home of former slave Frederick Douglass in 1877. He lived there until his death in 1895. The grounds include the main house, gardens, and an extensive collection of personal effects. The Douglass home, sitting on a 50-foot hill, was fully restored to its 1895 appearance. It is furnished with original objects belonging to him and his family. By the time of his passing, Douglass transformed Cedar Hill into a 21-room mansion, including a new kitchen addition, library and five additional rooms in the attic.

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Carolyn Black photo



Stratford Hall Plantation – c. Late 1730s
Stratford Hall – one of the most significant houses in American history – sits on a high bluff overlooking the Potomac River. While home to generations of Virginia’s Lee family, it is most notable for being the birthplace of Robert E. Lee. This magnificent setting is dominated by the Great House with its bold architecture. The brick Georgian marked a new style home in eighteenth-century Virginia, featuring a two-story, H-shaped structure, surrounded on four corners by attending buildings, all of which stand today. The surrounding grounds complement the great plantation house, providing remarkable vistas, broad lawns, a generous garden plot, and even an orchard.

Stratford Hall

Montpelier – c. 1764
Montpelier – home to President James Madison and our country’s first “First Lady,” Dolley Madison – is also where Madison, sitting in his upstairs library for six months, studied past forms of government and shaped the ideas that would eventually become the U.S. Constitution. The exquisite, 2,600-acre property sits in the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont, just a two-hour drive from Washington D.C. and offers over six miles of walking trails and an unspoiled view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

James Madison's father built the original two-story brick Georgian about 1760. The home had formal, symmetrical facades, with five vertical rows of openings on the face and three on the rear, including doors into opposite ends of a central passage. Rooms were stacked two-deep. After retiring from Congress in 1797, the younger Madison moved to Montpelier and grafted a second residence onto the side of his parents’ house for him and Dolley. In 1809, the year after he was elected president and eight years after his father's death, Madison turned the house into a proper seat for a chief executive, his wife, and mother. The change had more to do with shifting functions than size, though it included two additional, single-story wings. Through the centuries and various owners, the house grew in size and stature.

Montpelier, photo by Kenneth M. Wyner, courtesy of The Montpelier Foundation

Carlyle House Historic Park – c. 1753

Carlyle House was home to John Carlyle, a very wealthy merchant and one of the founders of Alexandria. He built this elegant stone mansion – completed in 1753 – for his bride, Sarah Fairfax of Belvoir. As you might recognize from the name Fairfax and the city named after them, Sarah came from one of the most prestigious families in colonial Virginia. Carlyle House was one of the nation’s finest examples of Georgian architecture and quickly became a center of social and political life in Alexandria. British General Braddock made the mansion his headquarters in 1755 and summoned five colonial governors to meet there and plan the early campaigns of the French and Indian War.

Carlyle House is also architecturally unique in Alexandria as the only stone, 18th-century Georgian house and, while it has a typical full Georgian domestic floor plan, it doesn’t conform to the frontal layout of most Georgians. Where there are usually five to seven bays, or openings, across the front elevation on each floor, Carlyle House features five on the first floor and six on the second. John Carlyle built his home to impress… and that it does.

Carlyle House

Cape Charles Historic District – c. 1884-1920s

Cape Charles sits on the Chesapeake Bay near the eastern tip of the Eastern Shore and was laid out to be the southern terminus of the newly formed New York, Philadelphia & Norfolk (NYP&N) Railroad. It also connected travelers to the elegant steamers wanting to cross the bay to Norfolk. With most of its structures built between 1885 and 1920, Cape Charles features one of the largest concentrations of late-Victorian and turn-of-the-century buildings on the East Coast. The architecture of Cape Charles houses comprises a wide variety of styles and gingerbread ornamentation on the older houses. There are also fine examples of Sears Roebuck mail order houses from the 1920s. A walk or bike ride through the town will afford you with a marvelous view of late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture.

Cape Charles Historic District

With structures built between 1885 and 1920, Cape Charles has one of the largest concentrations of late-Victorian and turn-of-the-century buildings on the East Coast. Visitors come to Cape Charles to experience its history and architecture.

Carlyle House Historic Park

The Carlyle House and Historic Park features tours of the house, programs for schoolchildren, special events, exhibits and lectures explore the life and times of John Carlyle in pre-Revolutionary Alexandria.

Dumbarton House

Dumbarton House is a fine example of Federal period architecture, furnished with decorative arts of the period, which offers visitors a unique opportunity to enhance their appreciation of early American history.

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site preserves the home and estate of Frederick Douglass, one of the most prominent African Americans of the 19th century. Douglass lived in this houseuntil his death in 1895.

Hampton National Historic Site

Hampton National Historic Site is the story of people -- enslaved African Americans, European indentured servants, industrial and agricultural workers, and owners. Hampton offers a variety of experiences for its visitors.


The Montpelier estate features the mansion, garden, historic buildings, exhibits, archaeological sites, and forests trails. Stroll the grounds, picnic, and learn more about the Constitution, James Madison, and Montpelier.

Stratford Hall Plantation

Stratford Hall Plantation is the restored historic plantation of the Lee family and the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, sitting on a high bluff above the Potomac River.

Riversdale House Museum

Riversdale, a National Historic Landmark, is a federal era house museum with interpreted rooms, dependency with open-hearth kitchen, and demonstration gardens. Free-standing Visitor Center with interpretive exhibits.

Historic London Town and Gardens

Historic London Town and Gardens is a 23-acre park located on the South River in Edgewater, MD. The site includes part of the late 17th and early 18th century town of London, which is currently begin excavated by archaeologists.

Debbie Brown Driscoll

Debbie Brown Driscoll is a freelance writer and retired PR consultant. She grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but has called Annapolis, Maryland home for more than 20 years. Her passion is visiting and writing about the history and happenings in the Chesapeake Bay area.

April 23, 2019

Main image: Hampton National Historic Site
Older Newer