On a recent trip to the plantation, guide Bob Aldridge greeted my wife and me at the back of the house — the side facing away from the river. “The river was the road,” said Bob, so the front would face the water. He had to make himself heard above the preparations for a wedding that would be held in the garden later that day.
In 1703, John Bowles built a two-room house here using post-in-ground construction; 309 years later, several of those original posts are still there. After Bowles’s death, four generations of the Plater family owned Sotterley between 1729 and 1822. They named the house after their ancestral home in Suffolk, England. As their wealth increased, successive Platers added to the original rooms, creating a long, narrow, stately brick-and-clapboard house with a steeply pitched roof that today sits on 100 acres of rolling hay fields.
The plantation reached its pinnacle during the time of George Plater III, a prominent politician who served as Maryland governor in the early 1790s. He added acreage and transformed the house into an elegant mansion. One stunning example of his vision is the drawing room at the north end of the house. The entire room, with the exception of the plaster ceiling, is carved in pine and poplar and painted a pale yellow. Above the mantel hangs a painting depicting the original house. Most notable are two recessed half-shell alcoves, showing the intricate woodcarving skills of 18th-century artisans, many of them slaves. An unusual Chinese Chippendale banister in the hallway was also added during this period.
Only five rooms are on display to the public; the others include a small parlor painted a startling blood red, a formal dining room with palm tree motif wallpaper, a library in the 1715 addition, and a small larder. Most of the furnishings and wall decorations in these rooms are from the 20th-century occupants.
But the plantation’s story isn’t just about the owners. “If you visit Sotterley, you learn about the estate’s wealthy owners, as well as the lives of slaves, tenant farmers, craftsmen, and domestic workers from the 1700s until the 1950s. Sotterley is uniquely valuable for the breadth of life it covers,” said Kenneth Cohen, an assistant professor of history at nearby St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who has worked as a consultant for Sotterley.