PG Tricentennial Prince George's County:
Over 300 years of History

by Catherine C . Lavoie

The architectural heritage of Prince George's County is rich and varied. Over the course of its three hundred-year history, the county has witnessed significant transformations in its architecture. Each era has been marked by leading styles and trends affected by regional and, later, national influences. The county's early architectural influences were decidedly Tidewater in nature, because southern Maryland was the origin of many of its first settlers. During the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, the county economy was exclusively agricultural. founded on a tobacco-growing, slave-based plantation system, this agricultural economy led to the adoption of the Georgian-style plantation house as a primary architectural form. Later changes away from symmetrical Georgian designs to popular side-hall-and-double-parlor house plans reflect broader influences that paralleled national trends but still maintained regional flavor. As the nineteenth century came to a close, the county witnessed a shift from rural farmsteads to residential communities, and Victorian styles, with their asymmetrical plans, came into popular use. This change marked the final assimilation with nationally recognized architectural styles in Prince George's County; as it did elsewhere. Suburbanization, facilitated by the rise of pattern-book and mail-order houses, continued as a trend throughout the twentieth century.

Prince George's County is probably best known architecturally for its eighteenth century Georgian and Federal-period plantation houses. These grand masonry residences, dating roughly from the I740s through the end of the eighteenth century, represent the peak of the county's architectural achievements and were among the first generation of substantial, permanent architecture. A whole century of architecture preceded them, however.


The county's first colonists, moving north along the Patuxent and Potomac rivers from the original settlements in southern Maryland, brought with them their southern Tidewater architectural traditions. Chief among them were houses with hall-and-parlor floor plans and 1 1/2-story gabled or gambrel roofs. Most of these early houses were small, wood-frame structures too fragile to stand the test of time, so their existence is evidenced mainly through written documents. Much of the information about these buildings comes from the 1798 Federal Direct Tax, the first such survey of its kind. This document provides a wealth of information about individual buildings and plantations of the period. While a significant number of surveyed plantation houses measured well over l000 square feet, the most frequent dimensions were much smaller, typically 28 by 20 feet. Only one in ten was of masonry construction; many had gambrel (referred to as tripped) roofs.

The Federal Direct Tax was not taken until 1798, but some of its notations (such as "old" or "very much out of repair") clearly indicate buildings that had been standing for several generations. These notations offer architectural information otherwise unavailable about these early county buildings: many were 1 l/2 stories, with gambrel roofs and modest dimensions. These Tidewater characteristics prevailed even through the turn of the nineteenth century in carry over examples such as Belle-view, near Friendly, and Snow Hill, near Laurel, evidenced by notations in the tax that such houses were "new" or "not yet finished." Thus, the Tidewater style imported bv the early colonists dominated the architecture of Prince George's County for well over a century.


In addition to providing information on early buildings, the Federal Direct Tax of 1798 was also a barometer of change. The late eighteenth century appears to be the first significant period of architectural change, as the first generation of architecture was replaced or enlarged and new forms were introduced. Among the first indicators of change was an expanded floor plan that appeared in new houses. The early eighteenth-century form such as at Want Water -- 1 1/2 stories, one room deep, with a boxed stairway and a gambrel roof-was replaced by an expanded plan, two rooms deep with an open stairway, in residences such as Wyoming. Georgian brick I-house forms of this period, such as at Melwood Park and Harmony Hall, which were one room deep with a center stairhall, by late century expanded to the two-room-deep, center-hall full Georgian form. This form was glorified in such outstanding Federal-style examples as Compton Bassett, Mount Lubentia, His Lordship's Kindness, Pleasant Prospect, and Montpelier. As the nineteenth century began, additions were often made to existing dwellings; the 1 1/2-story, hall-and-parlor-plan Belleview; for example, had its roof raised and became two rooms deep, with an added stairhall. In many cases, connecting passages also were built to attach the formerly separate kitchen buildings to the main block, to put all rooms "under one roof." It was a period of tremendous architectural change and growth in the housing stock of Prince George's County.


The expansion of house plans and the surge in building and remodeling that took place around the turn of the nineteenth century were brought about by a number of factors, for example, the prosperity of the tobacco trade and the diffusion of architectural styles and availability of building materials that came with the expansion of towns and trade routes established for tobacco transport. In addition, a nationwide trend toward heightened social awareness created the need for specialized social versus family spaces. It was in this vein that the plantation houses of the county's elite planter class were built. These elegant brick houses, constructed roughly between 1780 and 1820, remained without equal in their display of architectural detail and their formal arrangement.

The new plantation dwellings clearly indicated the wealth of their inhabitants. The newly adopted two-story; four-room Georgian plan was far more imposing than the earlier forms. Rooms were more detailed, there were more of them, and an inordinate amount of space was devoted to the center stairhall reception area. These houses could boast two parlors, one for entertaining guests and the other for the private use of the family, with service areas kept far out of sight. The best parlor was designed to display elegant formality, while the family parlor was meant for familiar, multipurpose use. Mount Lubentia, Compton Bassett, His Lordship's Kindness, and Montpelier are among the county's finest examples of a new and formal plan: imposing size, grand entry halls and stairways, and large, finely detailed rooms.


By the 1830s another significant change was beginning to take place in architectural styles and the reorganization of household and domestic space. The Georgian and Federal-period mansion that had supplanted the Tide-water dwelling of the previous era was itself gradually supplanted bv the side-hall-and-double-parlor form. This development away from the symmetrical Georgian style began to appear at the turn of the nineteenth century and established itself as a dominant form until the eve of the Civil War. This plan, paralleling national trends but maintaining a regional flavor, was used by planters and merchants alike, with decorative detail ranging from the most rustic to the near formal. It thus represents almost a democratization of the architecture of the county. The differences in the dwellings of this type were in size, materials (mostly frame, but a few of brick), and degree of detail. Woodstock, the Coffren House, Melford, and Pleasant Hills are good examples of this type.


The Civil War brought to a close the plantation system on Which the county's economy had been based. Whereas the period just before the war saw the peak of tobacco prosperity, the postwar era witnessed a substantial decrease in tobacco production and a temporary halt in population growth. As a result, little change occurred in the built environment during this time. The energies of the region were instead concentrated on diversification of agriculture and economic recovery. For the most part, no major architectural changes began to appear until nearly a generation after the Civil War; an exception is Bowling Heights, an outstanding example of High Victorian Gothic domestic architecture, built just a few years atter the war. This house, however, was an exception; the County would never again see the grand plantation houses of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, built on the concentrated wealth of the slave-based plantation system.

Because the county had always been agriculturally based, little industrial or commercial development took place. What could not be produced on the plantation or farmstead was purchased at general merchandise stores located at crossroads throughout the county. The Coffren Store in Croom exemplifies the nineteenth-century store that was the essential feature of every rural crossroads community. The earliest center of industry and commerce was Laurel, where in the 1820s the Snowdens of Montpelier established textile mills near the Snowden Iron Works founded by the same family nearly a century earlier. Soon afterward, in the 1830s, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line was constructed through Laurel, by then an established town. Another iron works was built in the 1840s at Muirkirk, a short distance south of Laurel on the railroad line. At the time, these industries provided virtually the only nonagricultural jobs in the county, especially for blacks, a number of whom formed small communities in this area. In one of these areas, Abraham Hall was built as a benevolent society lodge; today it remains the focal point of the Rossville community.


The next significant change in the architecture of the county did not come until the 1880s and 1890s, when the commuter railroad was introduced and suburban neighborhoods were formed. Residential communities were built along the Washington branches of both the B&O and Pennsylvania railroads in areas such as Hyattsville, Berwyn Heights, Riverdale, and College Park. Suburban development aimed at moderate-income families was in full swing nationwide during this period, creating both the need for an innovation house type, something between a town house and a county house, and a way to provide it cheaply and in volume. Thus, catalogues of house plans offered one means of designing and building suburban housing. This national trend is reflected in Prince George's County by houses designed by Robert W. Shoppell, one of the more successful "mail-order architects" of the era. Shoppell's designs reflect the popular architectural trends of Victorian America, with projecting bays and towers, wraparound porches, cross-gable roofs, polychromatic wall treatments, asymmetrical plans, and ornamental jigsawn trim. The O'Dea House in Berwyn Heights, built in the late 1880s, is one example of Shoppell's designs in Prince George's County. This design (no. 216) was described in the catalogue as having "fine, large rooms, a well lighted hall and stairway, good closet room, bath-room, back stairway, cellar, and a very attractive and comfortable veranda."

Suburban growth was further facilitated at the end of the nineteenth century by the establishment of trolley lines. In this way the county continued its move away from an agriculture-based economy, in which the majority of the population was tied to the land, to a population dependent on civil service and professional and business jobs in Washington, D.C. The national push toward suburbanization continued in the earlier twentieth century; the cost of suburban living decreased as more services and cheaper transportation became available. Closely associated with this trend was the rise of the small house, most notably the bungalow, seen in its many forms through- out the county today.

Together with suburban growth came the development of commercial centers. Hyattsville, for example, had bv the 1880s become an attractive residential Community with a thriving business center. A few of the turn-of-the- century commercial buildings remain, such as the Hyattsville Hardware Store. Many more, however, were replaced bv the mid-twentieth century with low-scale commercial strip developments and more substantial buildings such as the Hyattsville Armory.


One of the county's most significant examples of tweentieth-century architecture is Greenbelt, a planned community developed in the late 1930s by the federal government. Its residential architecture is starkly modern and streamlined. The focal point of the community is the Greenbelt Center School, built in the Art Deco style and ornamented by the sculptures of a Work Progress Administration (WPA) artist.

During the same period, a wealthier segment of society was constructing estate mansions in the Washington area. Although most of these grand homes were built on the north and west sides of the capital city, several fine examples in the county, such as the Newton White Mansion, survive.


Prince George's County, as one of the earliest and now one of the most developed counties in Maryland, is central to the timeline of the state's historic architecture. Over the past three centuries, the county's architecture has evolved from vernacular Tidewater traditions through academically inspired Georgian and Federal styles to nationally dispersed styles of the Victorian era and the early twentieth Century. An important factor was the county's proximity to the nation's capital, whose founding coincides with the construction of many of the county's finest homes; the establishment of the capital undoubtedly provided architectural influences as well as confidence in the economic and cultural future of the county. Indeed, Washington was the impetus for the development of the western region of the county, where railroad and trolley lines linked Prince George's to the capital city. Here suburban development employed new architectural forms, such as pattern-book houses and simple bungalows, as well as a new outlook: politics and business rather than agriculture. Likewise, Greenbelt, intended as a national model was located on the doorstep of the federal government.

Prince George's County's architecture has developed and matured from vernacular traditions to nationally recognized styles reflecting a thriving metropolitan area. As each new tradition develops, it forms a vital link in the progression of the county's architectural heritage.

Learn more about Three Hundred Years of County History,
Preserving these Landmarks,
or return to the top of this page.

Special thanks to

Prince George's County Historic Preservation Commission
Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission
14741 Governor Oden Bowie Dr.
Upper Marlboro, MD 20772

for letting us use these excerpts from Landmarks of Prince George's County History -- available in local libraries.

Prince George's History page.
Support our county history by joining the Prince George's Co. Historical Society
These pages were created as a part of the 1996 PG County Tricentennial celebration. Additional history resources are listed on the bibliography page. These pages are not being updated. They are now located on the Prince George's County Historical Society's web site. Contact links: web site manager - Society information. You can search the entire site through this search form.:

Search For:


Any word All words Exact phrase
Sound-alike matching