Listening to the land: history and interpretation of Montpelier’s cultural landscape

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The field of historic preservation has undergone dramatic changes since the early 1960s, when Montpelier Mansion, in Laurel, Maryland, became a public resource. One such change is the incorporation of cultural landscapes as significant, protected resources and keys to more fully understanding our history. Not only do cultural landscapes encompass the broader physical and temporal context of historic places,they also provide opportunities to examine previously untold stories. Prince George’s County boasts one of the country’s largest collections of 18th- and 19th-century plantation homes, but only a handful of these offer the public an interpretation of their broader landscape. Montpelier has been owned and interpreted by the Maryland-National Capitol Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) since 1961. Although 75 acres of the original 10,000-acre plantation continue to be owned along with the house, little is known about the development of Montpelier’s early landscape and no interpretation is provided for visitors to the site. The landscape at Montpelier has undergone a multitude of typological changes, evolving from the relative wilderness inhabited by Native Americans, to its development as a formal plantation, undergoing Colonial Revival adaptation during the early 20th century, and ultimately becoming a house museum and interpreted site. Furthermore, a cultural landscape approach provides a rich context through which to discuss the history of diverse and often underrepresented groups within the landscape of Montpelier and the wider Chesapeake region. This study investigates and interprets the history of Montpelier’s landscape, including its grounds and outbuildings. As an account of Montpelier’s broad cultural landscape, the report also illuminates connections between the environmental and cultural evolution of the site, considers Montpelier’s involvement in the development of the City of Laurel and the surrounding area, and examines the transition of everyday lifeways over a period of several hundred years. The report also forms the basis of a self-guided walking-tour for Montpelier visitors. More than simply providing a brochure for Montpelier’s visitors to reference, the integration of the history of Montpelier’s landscape into the site’s interpretive strategy provides M-NCPPC an opportunity to present a view of Chesapeake plantation development, use, and evolution that is, at this time, largely unavailable to the public.


Masters final project submitted to the Faculty of the Historic Preservation Program, School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, University of Maryland, College Park, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Historic Preservation. HISP 710/711 final project, May 2012.