Harold W. Husrt - August 2009
Walking Through the Past:
Touring Historic Chestertown
Harold W. Hurst
Each year thousands of tourists descend upon picturesque and historic Chestertown to view the splendid waterfront and explore the majestic Colonial and Federal mansions. Many visitors take the opportunity to browse through the town’s numerous gift shops, boutiques and antiques shops.
Chestertown has been described as a “gracious old place facing the broad and tranquil Chester River.” The same source further notes that the town is “the very essence of the Eastern Shore with its mellow combination of sights, feelings, tastes and smells that recall centuries of pleasant living.”
In addition to its charming ambiance, the town is a treasure house of architectural landmarks embracing houses, churches and public buildings of the Georgian, Greek Revival, Victorian Gothic and Second Empire styles. Both the history buff and the student of architecture will find much to fascinate them in this old port town.
A tour of Chestertown should begin at the Chester River waterfront, where rich planters and merchants erected majestic Georgian houses in the period between the 1740s and the 1780s. In an era before the rise of Baltimore, Chestertown was one of Maryland’s leading ports and shipping centers.
The largest and most elegant of the riverfront residences is Widehall, located at the junction of Water and High streets. Erected about 1769 by Thomas Smyth, it is a two-and-a-half-story brick building with a fifty-foot front on Water Street and a forty-foot depth. A Doric architrave with fluted columns faces the street.
Several famous occupants have claimed Widehall as their home. Ezekiel Forman Chambers, a Federal judge and United States Senator, bought the mansion in the early 1800s and lived there until his death in 1867. A later owner, Wilbur W. Hubbard, remodeled the house and added a Doric portico with a double porch.
Another impressive structure built in the Colonial era is the Hynson-Ringgold house on Water Street. Erected about 1743 by Dr. William Murray, it was later enlarged by Thomas Ringgold V, a member of one of Maryland’s most powerful and influential families. The five-bay, two-and-a-half-story building now is fronted by a Greek Revival porch added by James Alfred Pearce, a United States Senator who bought the house in 1853.
The former customs house on Water Street was, for many years, the largest building in Chestertown. Built in 1742 and enlarged by Thomas Ringgold IV in 1772, it has been altered several times and is now occupied by Washington College.
A number of other impressive Georgian structures face the Chester River. Most are privately owned and are not open to the public except on special tour days.
One house facing the waterfront appears out of place among the Colonial-style mansions in the neighborhood. At the corner of Cannon and Water streets stands a white Italian Villa-style home erected in 1858 by Captain James F. Taylor. A charming structure, it features decorated Italian villa brackets and a low pitched roof adorned with a cupola or belvidere. The place is sometimes referred to as Fort Belvidere.
The visitor who walks up High Street toward the center of town will pass other Colonial- and Federal-era houses, most of which are less spacious and stately than the mansions that line Water Street on the harbor.
A right turn into Queen Street, off High Street, leads the tourist into a neighborhood where the houses were built largely in the Federal era (1780s to the 1820s). The most celebrated house here is probably the Geddes-Piper house on Church Alley, now occupied by the Kent County Historical Society. A three-story, three-bay brick building, it dates from about 1784. A later occupant constructed a one-and-a-half-story brick wing containing a kitchen and dining room.
At the corner of High and Queen streets stands one of the earliest brick houses in Chestertown. Built around 1735, it was restored in 1977. Known as the Buck-Bacchus store, it has been altered several times and has served both as a business and a private residence.
The oldest house of worship in Chestertown is Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Although the parish was established in about 1720 by the Church of England, the present structure was put up in 1772 and remodeled in the 1880s. The bell tower was added in 1905. The west side of the church, which is Romanesque in design, faces High Street, while the front entrance is on Cross Street.
Books, pamphlets and tour guides of Chestertown devote lavish attention to the White Swan Tavern. Hardly an impressive structure, it dates from 1733 but was extensively remodeled in the 1790s and again in the 1860s. It now serves as a bed and breakfast.
A small park on High Street in the center of town contains a memorial honoring the men in Kent County who served in the Civil War. It is a reminder of the divided loyalty of Marylanders in the conflict. The southern face of the statue lists the names of 37 Confederate officers and enlisted men. The northern side contains the names of 22 officers and men who served in the Union Army, but an added phrase notes that 130 privates also were in the Northern army. Some people in Chestertown and Kent County were Southern sympathizers, but most of them supported the Union cause while opposing the radical policies of the Lincoln administration.
Chestertown’s architectural landscape embraces more than 18th-century Georgian homes. The town enjoyed a boom in the middle decades of the 19th century as a result of newly established steamboat connections, agricultural diversification on the Eastern Shore and the introduction of the peach culture. In 1868 the railroad came to the town, facilitating access to Delaware and the northern ports.
One majestic antebellum landmark is the Kent County courthouse, erected in 1860. Designed in the then popular Italianate style, it was remodeled in 1912 and again in 1937. Recent rumors hint that eerie sounds in the attic of the building suggest it is haunted by a ghost!
In the northern part of the town on the Washington College campus stand three buildings constructed between 1844 and 1854. Superb examples of Greek Revival architecture, they symbolize the rebirth of the college (founded in 1792) and the growth of Chestertown. They remained the chief buildings of the college until the 1890s.
The post-Civil War era witnessed the construction of Italian Villa, Victorian Gothic and Second Empire buildings on upper High Street and neighboring side streets in an area a few blocks north of the waterfront. Facing High Street in the downtown business area is Stam’s Hall, a massive red brick building designed in the Second Empire style. Opened for business in the Christmas season of 1886, it housed both government and business facilities. Colin Ferguson Stam, who put up the building, was a prominent local entrepreneur.
The first movies in Chestertown were shown in Stam’s Hall in 1913. Later a new building was put up next door that seated 650 patrons. Today this structure is designated as the Prince Theatre and is the scene of films, stage plays and concerts. Together, Stam’s Hall, the Prince Theatre and the adjoining Imperial Hotel, with its double-verandah front, form a multi-varied architectural panorama, adding a picturesque flavor to the commercial district of Chestertown.
Further north on High Street the tourist will get a glimpse of the Victorian Gothic style at Christ Methodist Church, erected in the late 1880s. On the side of the main structure is a large tower in square form, while an oblong-shaped tower graces the north side. Arched stained glass windows and a gable roof lend a “Gothic” appearance to the whole facade. This house of worship was unusually elaborate for a small-town Methodist church in this era.
Another example of “High Victorian Gothic” is located almost across the street from the church. The Thomas Hubbard House at 402 High Street was built in the late 1870s and typifies this mode of residential architecture. A large mansion for a small town, it features a steep, sloping roof, bay windows and bracketed cornices. At the rear east end is a large L-wing with a gable roof that adds to the impressive appearance of the structure. The Thomas Hubbard House is one of the few remaining vestiges of the High Victorian style in Chestertown. It is now a bed and breakfast inn.
Slavery had existed on the Eastern Shore from the earliest days. Many blacks, however, were freed during the early days of the 19th century. By 1860 free blacks consisted of 26 percent of the total population of Chestertown, while slaves formed only 10 percent. The African-American community centered on or near Cannon Street, where black-owned houses and businesses were concentrated.
One landmark erected by blacks during the antebellum era was the house of James A. Jones, which still stands at the corner of Kent and Cannon streets. This two-and-a-half-story two-bay frame building has a two-story addition and a lean-to kitchen in the rear. Another house on Cannon Street was owned by Maria Bracker, a free black woman who sold ice cream and lemonade in the 1840s and 1850s to mostly white customers.
As elsewhere in America, African-American life centered around the church. The original Zion Methodist Church, founded in 1831, built a new church in 1866 at the corner of Cannon and Cross streets known today as the Janes United Methodist Church.
Few small towns in the United States embrace as many structures of historical and architectural significance as does Chestertown. Its waterfront and downtown districts include at least 60 buildings erected before the Civil War, approximately 30 of which date from the Colonial era. Other structures put up in later eras make this old river town a virtual panorama of many-hued architectural attractions. A tour of Chestertown is truly a walk through the past.