In the latest on our look at deserving candidates for an historical marker, we turn out attention to 608 Cameron Street.
As a seaport city, Alexandria has heard all kinds of language. We’re guessing Flemish is certainly not in the top five, but when members of a northern Belgian family arrived in the latter stages of the 18th century, a touch of that language and culture seeped into the town.
In the summer of 1794, the Stier family watched nervously as the Army of Revolutionary France (Flanders Campaign) crept closer to their two homes in Antwerp. They fled to America, leaving behind a life of aristocracy and privilege.
The family consisted of Baron Henri Joseph Stier (1743-1821), a wealthy financier and art collector, his wife Marie (1748-1804), their daughter Isabella and her husband Jean Michael (Baron) van Havre, their son Charles and his wife Mimi (sister of Jean Michael), and their 16-year-old daughter Rosalie.
After a brief stay in Philadelphia, the Stier’s and van Havre’s moved to Annapolis. The Stier’s brought with them “the finest collection of paintings that ever crossed the Atlantic” (Margaret Law Callcott, “Mistress of Riversdale.”) Henri was a direct descendant of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), a prolific painter who fancied the Baroque style.
Henri, Marie and Rosalie stayed in Annapolis, living at one point in the “Paca House.” The appointment seemed to meet their early needs, but Henri soon stated, “Annapolis was declining.” After the turn of the century he looked towards the infant Federal City and began plans for building a plantation manor two miles north of Bladensburg. They would name it “Riversdale.” When Henri needed a reliable carpenter and joiner, he reached into Alexandria and hired Robert G. Lanphier. As the plans unfolded, the Stiers rented “Bostwick.”
Meanwhile, Charles and Mimi, and Isabelle and Jean Michael moved to Alexandria. Charles had tried Baltimore but better liked Alexandria’s “buildings and industry.”
In 1798, Jean Michael bought 608 Cameron when it was new. Charles bought the rest of the quarter block from 608 to the southeast corner of Cameron and N. Washington streets. Evidence, however, indicates he did not live there. In her book, Cox says Charles was living (rented) at 208 N. Fairfax.
The van Havre’s timing was excellent. Alexandria was experiencing what Smith and Miller (“A Seaport Saga”) call the city’s “Golden Epoch.” The streets were muddy but taverns were plentiful and luxury could be found. The family members surely danced at Gadsby’s City Tavern just a few blocks away from their home.
In the summer of 1700, nobility crossed paths with democracy at Mount Vernon. On June 20, the family dined with George and Martha Washington. What a night it must have been. Sitting at the table were Oliver Ellsworth, Chief Justice of the United States, William Hodgson and his wife Portia Lee, Ludwell Lee and his wife Elizabeth, Hannah Lee, Henri and Marie, Charles and Mimi, Jean Michael and Isabelle, and George Calvert and his bride Rosalie Eugenia Stier.
Calvert, whose grandfather was Charles Calvert 5th Baron of Baltimore, and Rosalie, were newlyweds. They spent two nights at Mount Vernon. The Calvert family was familiar to the Washington’s. George’s sister Eleanor had married John Parke Custis, who passed away in 1781.
In June 1803, all of the Stier’s returned to their homeland except for Rosalie. She and George took over the construction of Riversdale, a five part, two-story built in the late Georgian style.
Missing them dearly, Rosalie penned over two hundred letters to her family back in Belgium. Dr. Alfons Bousse, an archivist in Belgium, discovered the letters in the 1970s. Callcott used them to write “Mistress of Riversdale, The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert.” The author notes these letters “provided an uncommonly readable account of America’s early history.”
Brief mentions of Alexandria pepper her writings. In a letter to Charles in late December, Rosalie writes:
Do you remember how gay we were at this same season when you were here? Everything recalls the time we had together – our horseback rides, our stay in your pretty home in Alexandria…
Rosalie and George raised their family at Riversdale, which was recently restored to its former glory. Sadly, Rosalie died in 1821 at the age of 42. Equally sad was the mortality rate for children in those days. Four of their nine children did not live to maturity.
Callcott’s book also provides a peeks into the family’s time in Alexandria. Henri and Charles Jean befriended William Herbert and invested in his bank. Charles became a merchant investor.
608 Cameron, described by Bailey as “a comfortable townhouse of great dignity with subtle properties, refined details and special features,” was next owned by Captain Bathurst Daingerfield. Born in Spotsylvania County in 1767, he moved to Alexandria in 1800. Henry, one of three sons, became a well-known sea captain and real-estate magnate. Harold W. Hurst described him as a “tireless promoter of other industries and railroads which were responsible for the economic boom” in Alexandria in the 1850s. John made a name for himself in shipping and helped fund the replacement of the original Latrobe steeple at City Hall. The Daingerfield name became legendary in business circles.
608 Cameron has long been overshadowed by two homes across the street. 607 belonged to Thomas, Ninth Lord Fairfax and his son Orlando. Two doors down Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee lived there for a while.
Nevertheless, as we have seen, this handsome brick dwelling stands proud and tall, a history maker in its own right.
(Margaret Law Callcott, “Mistress of Riversdale.”)
Ethelyn Cox, Historic Alexandria, Virginia, Street by Street
Project by Historic American Buildings Survey and Historical Alexandria Foundation. Worth Bailey, historian. 1975