Meet Mac Alpine, or Past Lives of the Cafritz Property, Part 1

macalpine-crop.jpg

You can still see the old gate posts at the corner, hidden by a holly bush and a stand of bamboo. One post says Calvert, while the other reads Mac Alpine. They mark the entrance to Mac Alpine, the mansion once located at Route 1 and Albion Road.

I spent time in the University of Maryland archives this summer. I wanted to know more about this historic property that straddled the Cafritz and WMATA (Metro) parcels. Both are part of Riverdale Park. However, Albion is the southern boundary of the Calvert Hills neighborhood of College Park. Albion lies on a slope that crests at the Amherst-Pineway-Queen’s Chapel Road intersection and is known as Cat-Tail Hill. As recently as the 1970s, children sledded down Cat-Tail Hill. Here, the three “Parks” meet.

During my research, I was surprised to find a paper written in 1934 documenting much of the history and construction of Mac Alpine on Cat-Tail Hill.

Picturing Mac Alpine & Cat-Tail Hill
The paper includes a carefully rendered drawing (click for full image) noting an old “Indian burial ground” near the property of the Mac Alpine house at the corner of Route 1 and Albion Road. Three slave dwelling locations are also marked. A number of small outbuildings are indicated, including two well heads, several barns, an ice house and other farm structures.

What does this 1934 primary source mean for development of the Cafritz property? In 2005, Prince George’s County strengthened a key piece of historic preservation legislation. M-NCPPC now has this document in hand and will require a significant survey of the property by historic preservation professionals: specialists in archeology, anthropology, architectural history, historical agronomy, Prince George’s County culture and history.

Civil War & Reconstruction
The Mac Alpine mansion was built in 1867-1868 by Charles Baltimore Calvert, grandson of Rosalie Stier Calvert and Benedict Calvert of the lovingly restored Riversdale Mansion. The Riversdale plantation once extended nearly from Bladensburg to College Park. Riverdale Park, Calvert Hills in College Park, a chunk of University Park and much of the University of Maryland once were part of the Calvert estate. Division of the estate, first to children and then grandchildren, eventually yielded other sales and the development of neighborhoods and towns along Route 1, the old Baltimore-Washington Road.

Very little is known about Mac Alpine compared to the fascinating body of papers, artifacts and commentary on Riversdale. I had heard from long time residents and people active in historic preservation in Prince George’s County that some parts of Mac Alpine may have been designed or built by Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the Capital. Mac Alpine, demolished in the 1970s, was apparently a lovely and fascinating house, but was noticed too late by the emerging historic preservation effort.

I began my search to confirm the Latrobe question. Mac Alpine had a stupendous mantel of Tennessee marble, fitted with a “Latrobe Stove.” But this stove was not an architectural masterpiece of Benjamin Latrobe. Rather, Latrobe’s son, John Hazlehurst Boneval Latrobe, invented this stove, which was widely used in the East until the move away from wood heat to coal heat. Mac Alpine featured custom faux wood grain painted by the son of the Mr. Day who frescoed many of the walls in the Capital Building.

Occupied Long Before 1868
The document continues with fascinating details of a working farm. The Calverts were instrumental in founding the Maryland Agricultural College, later renamed the University of Maryland.

But the most intriguing and important details for proposed development concern both text and renderings that note:

  • the presence of the foundations of three slave cabins on the property
  • the “rumor” of an Indian burial ground to the north and right of the house’s front porch
  • buildings on Cat-Tail Hill before Mac Alpine.

Here are the text references from Phillips, Jack W. — The history and construction of Mac Alpine, 1934:

  • At the time that the Mac Alpine was built there were at least three slave cabins on the property. They were built of logs plastered with mud, but have since been burnt by sparks from the Baltimore and Ohio railroad trains setting fields on fire. It is interesting to note that although the slaves were set free at the time of the Civil War, Mrs. Calvert’s maid, Sarah Taylor, stayed and continued as her maid for many years.
  • There is a rumor that there was once an Indian burying ground in the grove of trees just northeast of the house. This is unconfirmed, but Mr. George H. Calvert, Jr., remembers that often, when ditches were dug on the farm, arrowheads and tomahawks were found…
  • Before the house had been built (Mac Alpine) there had been a house occupied by a foreman of the old Riversdale Estate, on almost the same spot.

See you at the Cafritz meeting Saturday or Tuesday.–MbS

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9 Comments

Filed under Cafritz Property, Calvert Hills, College Park, Events, History, Riverdale Park

9 responses to “Meet Mac Alpine, or Past Lives of the Cafritz Property, Part 1

  1. paulspeck

    Thanks for the fascinating historical information. I love to know this kind of stuff–the more the better. It helps me enormously to understand the place where I am living and, specifically, to appreciate that this “place” which may superficially resemble so many other places in the country today, is important and unique. It would be terrific if local community members and developers could find ways to continually tie our present and future place to our history. Thank you again for your research and for helping to bring part of that history to light.

  2. Marianne Thrift

    Well before they built the College Park Physical Ellipse area, we used to go watch remote control car enthusiasts in this Mac Alpine area. There was a road that we thought was for the original college park airport which ran almost straight up to Kenilworth ave and river. Looking at the maps from the MacAlpine era, that concrete/asphalt road seems to run about where the road through the alpine property. Or was this from the pre/post war housing that was there along the tracks?

  3. MbS

    Hi MT,

    You can see the “fingerprints” of asphalt roadways and the concrete ‘tie-down” foundations of the Calvert Homes war-worker housing in images of the Mac Alpine property on Cat-Tail Hill/Cafritz Parcel. Calvert Homes buildings straddled both sides of the railroad tracks, when they were in their heyday. I believe that the homes on the “River Road” side of the now SCX tracks were taken down first. Calvert Homes on the “Route 1″ side of the CSX tracks served as home for many more years. GI Bill college students with families lived there for about a decade or so after WWII.

    What you may be talking about is the remnants of an airstrip. You also can see the pathway to ball fields and the parking lot near Gosling Pond, that link up to a piece of Riverdale Park. (Lots of layers of activity there over the years!) The ERCO Factory had a very small airstrip associated with the plant. The docents at the College Park Air Museum may be able to help you. Briefly, about ERCO: Henry Berliner, of Berliner Helicopter fame, founded Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) in 1930 and ran the company until about 1950. ERCO’s Ercoupe plane featured many safety innovations. I believe that NOAA once owned/leased the ERCO building and lots. I believe that UMCP either owns this piece or an option on the parcel. It looks likely to be a part of the M Square research development underway.

    I love hearing about model car fun there.

  4. Doug McElrath

    It is unfortunate that we have so little reliable information on MacAlpine, now that it is the focus of so much attention. The “primary source” cited in the original posting is all that currently is available, but I urge everyone to treat it for what it is. The 1934 paper in question was written as part of the initiation requirements for an honorary engineering fraternity at the University of Maryland. The author was an undergraduate who had very little training as an historian. It is part of a collection held in the University’s archives know as Phi Mu (the name of the fraternity) – a description of the collection is available at http://www.lib.umd.edu/archivesum/actions.DisplayEADAbstract.do?source=/MdU.ead.univarch.0060.xml&tyle=abstract&ocname=/MdU.ead.univarch.0060.xml

    I also would caution against statements about a Latrobe connection to MacAlpine. Benjamin Latrobe died in 1820, MacAlpine was built in 1867. There was a Latrobe design for Riversdale Mansion, but Henri Stier rejected that plan and the house has no real Latrobe elements in the way it was built.

    The slave cabins may have been part of the original Riversdale estate, but I suspect any evidence of them is long gone as their location is in the vicinity of the Field of Dreams. This area has seen considerable disturbance since the MacAlpine days, most notably as part of the Erco airplane manufacturing factory.

    As a historic preservationist I agree that we need to research and document the prior history of the site. However I would not like to see historic preservation used as an excuse to prevent the redevelopment of a site that already has witnessed several phases of development. History is the story of change over time – we cannot freeze time – but we can use the changes being proposed for the Cafritz property to celebrate an interesting past that continues to inform the present.

  5. MbS

    Hi Doug,

    I am glad you read this posting and like me, appreciate this opportunity to learn more about the layers of history hidden on Cat-tail Hill/Mac Alpine. Others who are examining the document speculate that the location of the slave dwellings may have been further North, closer to the Physics Association Ellipse. You are right to note that in any case, the range of activity at the ERCO plant and airplane runway likely “covered” these locations. Perhaps, your thought that these dwellings are “under” the Field of Dreams is closer to the true location.

    That the historic preservation movement matured too late to assess, study, or conserve the Mac Alpine structure is quite sad to me. That slave dwelling foundations were covered long ago, before they could have been assessed, noted, and perhaps the location preserved is additionally tragic. I believe that this Mac Alpine residence was taken down in the early 1970s. Prior to that time, several news articles including the Washington Post note efforts to save the building, perhaps for use as a library or women’s club building.

    I am glad that we now as a society understand how precious history is. Further, I am proud that Prince George’s County has a carefully-detailed law requiring that all development incorporate historical resource analysis into the excavating and building process. I hope we learn more about these layers:

    *Pre-colonial, especially about the succession of tribal inhabitation
    *Colonial, especially about the Patuxent and Piscataway tribes, and later the newcomers: explorers and colonists
    *Revolutionary War
    *Agriculture/industrialization before the Civil War
    *Civil War
    *Reconstruction; and the advent of the MD Agricultural College (now UMCP) by Calvert vision
    *WW I
    *WW II and the Calvert Homes war-workers housing on the site, a fascinating example of mid-Century architecture

    As for the Latrobe reference, finding this document shed light on how that name came to be associated with Mac Alpine: people are correct to say that the Latrobe name is associated with Mac Alpine, by the presence of the Latrobe stove. And yes, this stove type was quite popular in the region at the time. Here is the clipped text from the post:
    “But this stove was not an architectural masterpiece of Benjamin Latrobe. Rather, Latrobe’s son, John Hazlehurst Boneval Latrobe, invented this stove, which was widely used in the East until the move away from wood heat to coal heat.”

    That the oral tradition retained the Latrobe name, correctly, yet ascribed it to the architect is fascinating. I look forward what to historians and archaeologists might tell us about Cat-Tail/Mac Alpine.

    Finally, the voice of the writer is also of interest. The architecture student visited the house and property. He walked the grounds and noted both existing and remnant buildings. He interviewed family members and used family papers; While this approach may not be primary in a strict historical sense, as would a bill-of-sale, a land patent, architectural blueprints, a diary, etc.; nevertheless, the writer engaged directly with the object of his study.

  6. MICHAEL BELLO

    i know a lot about this area. i lived in calvert homes for nine years before everyone had to get out by 1953. i went to elementary school at calvert homes. it was right next to the macalpine mansion. the streetcar ran straight down the middle of calvert homes. i went to the university of maryland and made a copy of the paper by jack phillips. i would love to hear from anyone who lived at calvert homes from 1943 to 1952. e:mail me at michael.belloATbaesystems.com (replace AT with@)

    • Joe Ziliox

      I lived on Tuckerman Street in Riverdale between US 1 and the streetcar tracks. Although I was not born until 1951 I played everyday and rode my bike through the area that was Calvert Homes. There was a foundation slab from one of the homes behind my house. We played on the slabs and the roads were there for many more years. We also used to play in the abandoned Macalpine Mansion ( did not know the name of the mansion at that time ) and two of my childhood friends fell through the second floor as the mansion was in ill repair in the late 50s and early 60s. We always thought that the mansion had been a bank ! The school which was next door was still being used while we were children and I believe it was for children who had sight and hearing disabilities. I am so glad to hear more of its real history. The house that we lived in had been sold to my grandfather by an engineer who worked at ERCO during WW II. While he lived there neighbors told me that he had a pet male lion that he walk through the neighborhood at which time the neighbors would go inside !

  7. Janet Hoff Ferguson

    I lived in Calvert Homes and my memory on the location seems a little different than the one given for the Macalpine mansion. Calvert Mansion was how we referred to it. Albion St is off Rt 1 and the mansion I remember was off Woodberry Rd. (not St) in the project as Calvert Homes was referred to. The second floor was a library and the first floor was used for community events. A two story building painted pale yellow, it didn’t face Rt 1. We referred to the housing in that location as “the hill.” We lived in a 2 story row house constructed of cinder block on a slab. Life was hard there. We were some of last residents to leave after my father returned from the war. I remember Joe Bello-are you related Michael?

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