Expansion and Refinement: the Crafting of a Power House

September 12, 2018

When William Hemsley II came of age, he took over and successfully managed his plantation. He married three times, outliving two of his wives. The date of his first nuptial to Henrietta Maria Earle (granddaughter of Richard Tilghman) is unknown, but it very likely took place before William made some or all of his first-round changes to the house. His initial efforts were modest and included raising the two, rear corner rooms to a full two stories. That gave more space to these back chambers and the house appeared closer to the model two-story, double-pile gentry house of his time. The roof over the rear range differed from what William would soon change it to. Possibly he ran rear gables over each section that, when combined with the existing gable over the stair tower, created an M profile, a form seen on some other early dwellings. That roof clearly was problematical and presumably leaked, which one can deduce from the timbers he ordered cut during the winter of 1760-61 to replace it with the shed that now covers the rear range.

The death of Henrietta and William’s subsequent marriage to Sarah Williamson (1746-1794) in 1767 was the impetus for a stylistic makeover of the house that fine-tuned the interiors to the degree of elaboration befitting a late colonial seat. Dendrochronology demonstrates that trees were felled for this work during the winter of 1768-69, a date that nicely dovetails with Hemsley’s business account with Philadelphia carver Benjamin Randolph, who may have provided some of the carving for the couple’s new venture.

William and Sarah’s remodeling touched virtually all surfaces on the two main floors, starting with the narrowing of the front windows to better proportion them for sash. If the house did not originally have sash but were instead fitted with leaded casements, they were changed out at this time including those in the dormers. Most of the closets that remained were removed to enlarge the size of rooms, and the closet windows were made into blind openings so that they still read as fenestration outside but with exterior shutters closed to mask their blocking inside. Windows were also cut into the two gables, which helped brighten an interior that had grown dimmer by the addition of rear chambers constructed for William’s father.

As part of the interior makeover, a passage was inserted into the old hall. That was the final organizational piece that made the house work like a conventional Georgian-plan arrangement. The ground-story rooms were wainscoted, the windows and doors retrimmed, the exterior walls furred out and replastered, and cornices installed in the public spaces. The door to the stairway at the back of the new passage was converted to an opening with a plaster arch, since arches were the traditional way of joining two circulation spaces. The Hemsleys maintained the staircase of their grandfather’s, for it was a fine piece of workmanship even at this late date. Because they saved it, the balustrade survives as one (if not the) earliest stair in the South and certainly is one of the most impressive of the early eighteenth century. However, to update the stair hall, the Hemsleys had the walls plastered with a sanded surface, almost as if of roughcast, scoring it to resemble ashlar, and painting it with a soft, yellow-pigmented limewash to mimic yellow sandstone.

Transformation of the dining room into the primary entertaining room was completed. The doorway to the rear chamber was blocked and so was that to the stair hall. The room was self-contained and dressed as a show place, the likes of which few on the Shore could boast. Most impressive was the chimneypiece, which featured floor-to-ceiling Ionic pilasters flanking a mantel with a carved frieze and consoles, and an overmantel equally dripping with the latest rococo adornments. Historians have speculated about the source of the carving, which was either created by the hands of the talented Courtenay Hercules, once an apprentice to the English carver, Thomas Johnson, or perhaps those of Benjamin Randolph of Philadelphia, for whom Courtenay later worked. Whomever did the carving, the hunt scene in the frieze comes from Johnson’s book, One Hundred and Fifty New Designs (London, 1761) and is one of the finest pieces of rococo carving found in the South.

The old hall, now diminished in size, became a new reception parlor and was appropriately dressed. Although most of the trim was removed by later owners, evidence survives to show that it, too, was wainscoted, had a cornice, and double-architraves flanked its windows.

The upstairs was as fully transformed as below. An elliptical arch broadens across the passage to connect the stair hall with the smaller passage that controlled access to the chambers over the parlor and dining room. To announce the importance of a new drawing room on this floor—which the Hemsleys stacked above the dining room in the style of the grandest Annapolis, Philadelphia, and London townhouses—an ornate block cornice was fitted around the passage leading to it. The new drawing room, bathed in light with the removal of closets and addition of windows on the end wall, was fitted with a new baseboard, chair board, cornice, and an elaborate chimneypiece. Most impressively, they paneled the upper walls in plaster in a manner used by only a handful of their contemporaries. That exclusive group included the house of Hemsley’s former brother-in-law, Thomas Ringgold in Chestertown, which was renovated two years later.

The remainder of the second floor was retrimmed to update the bedchambers and the house was repainted inside and out. The older earth tones of William’s father and grandfather were replaced with more fashionable treatments, including the soft cream color of his ground-floor woodwork that enhanced the refinement of their remodeling.

Hemsley, as a leading planter on the Shore, soon represented his neighbors by holding local offices, serving both in Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties. In 1779 he was elected to the state senate. Between 1782 and 1783 he served in the Continental Congress in New York. After declining his election in 1784, he returned to the state senate in 1786. During the war he was appointed to the rank of colonel in the militia of Queen Anne’s County, was a member of the Maryland Convention that ratified the United States Constitution in 1788, and represented Maryland in the Continental Congress in 1782 and 1783. Building on the privilege that his heredity and marriages afforded him, Col. William Hemsley became a wealthy planter, was a prominent statesman, and he had refashioned his estate into the power-house that his position and fortune demanded.

During the Revolutionary War years he was not too distracted to continue the refinement of his plans. His newest task included building an extensive service wing that included space for at least some of his domestic servants—most likely all enslaved Africans—to live and room, and also for equipment for their assigned tasks. In a manner more akin to the townhouses of Philadelphia than the plantations on the Western Shore, Col. William Hemsley built a brick hyphen to connect a back building and kitchen, also in brick, that trailed off the rear of his house. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that construction was not fully worked out when work first began. One might read the evidence that the archaeologists present, however, as having started on the north wall of the hyphen and reaching near the point of its intersection with the back building before all was reconciled. The spaces removed the servant living quarters from the main body of the house, which had until then appeared to have included room for them in the garret. The Hemsleys new house was now fully ordered, with discreet zones for the public, another, more private sphere for the family, and finally a fully separate facility for the work activities and living spaces for those who toiled at these efforts.

Although documentation is lacking and archaeology has yet commenced on the gardens, it seems most likely that Col. William Hemsley and his wife, Sarah, also created the extensive gardens whose structure is still evident on the land. Despite relatively flat ground, the Hemsleys terraced it, included formal gardens within the terraces, and a bowling green on one of the rises. With the garden in place, the family had all the trappings of an aspiring and energetic elite family of the Shore: a newly remodeled house with the latest fashionable trim from London, an orderly service complex in which their labor force could efficiently run the domestic affairs of the plantation, and gardens for reflection by the family and where outdoor entertainment of peers could take place. It was with these parts firmly in place that Col. Hemsley lived out the rest of his long life. Three years after Sarah’s death in 1794, Col. Hemsley remarried a third and final time to Anna Maria (Nancy) Tilghman (1750-1817), daughter of James Tilghman of Hermitage and sister to Tench Tilghman. After his death, she remarried Robert Lloyd, from another prominent Eastern Shore family, and outlived her husband by five years.

By: Willie Graham for the Cloverfields Preservation Foundation