Custom House

Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience

Washington College’s Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience explores the American experience in all its diversity and complexity, seeks creative approaches to illuminating the past, and inspires thoughtful conversation informed by history.

In an old colonial building beside a tidal river, in the heart of a historic American town, there’s a place where scholars and students, eminent authors and national leaders, come together to study our nation’s past and present. The Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience is a base camp for exploring one of America’s richest and most fascinating regions. Our programs bridge the gap between the academic realm and the world at large, supporting some of the most gifted and innovative writers and thinkers at work today. From our home in the circa-1746 waterfront Custom House, the Starr Center also serves as a portal onto a world of opportunities for Washington College students.

The Center is committed to supporting and fostering the art of written history, through the George Washington Book Prize, resident fellowships, and other programs. The Center’s staff and visiting fellows frequently publish books and articles on American history in many major publications, from The New York Times and The Washington Post to National Geographic and Smithsonian.

Each year, the Center sponsors a rich array of talks and other free public programs presented by leading American historians. We also uphold the legacy of Washington College, established in 1782 with a mandate to honor its namesake and patron, George Washington, and to keep the “public virtues and patriot-labours” of America’s founding generation alive in the hearts of future generations.

From its inception in 2000 until 2006, the Starr Center was headed by Ted Widmer, a presidential historian and former speechwriter for the Clinton Administration’s National Security Council. In July 2006, Adam Goodheart was appointed the Starr Center’s second Director.

The Starr Center has been established and sustained with the generous support of The Starr Foundation, the Hodson Trust, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, with project grants from the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education, and with the contributions of many individual donors and friends.

 

Built in 1746, the Custom House was the residence of Thomas Ringgold, a leader of the local Sons of Liberty who was also – in cruel contrast – one of the most active slave traders in the entire Chesapeake region. The building, overlooking the tidal waters of the Chester River, also served as a warehouse and store, and British redcoats were quartered here during the French and Indian War. 


Prior to the Revolution, Chestertown’s local inspector of His Majesty’s Customs worked in an adjacent office, recording the cargoes of vessels coming and going from Chestertown to Europe, the West Indies, Africa, and beyond. In May of 1774, the dramatic and much-debated Chestertown Tea Party may or may not have occurred beneath the windows of the Custom House. (Oral tradition holds firmly that it did.)

After the Revolution


In the 19th century, after the Chesapeake’s maritime trade moved across the Bay to Baltimore, Chestertown became a charming, picturesque backwater where older ways of life persisted for many decades.

During those years, the Custom House was the home of U.S. Senator James Alfred Pearce (1805–1862), who helped create the Smithsonian Institution and worked to keep the Union together at the outset of the Civil War.

From the time of the Revolution until recent decades, Chestertown’s population barely changed, a fact that has preserved dozens of its historic buildings. In the 20th century, the Custom House was restored by Wilbur Ross Hubbard, a local preservationist and civic leader who bequeathed it to Washington College upon his death in 1993.

The Starr Center occupied the Custom House after generous gifts from the Starr Foundation and private donors. The restored building boasts original Georgian paneling, fireplaces, wide-board floors, and a riverfront porch. Today, the Custom House sits at the center of a National Historic District of 18th- and 19th-century houses.

Hon. Robert W. Duemling (Past Chair, deceased), former U.S. Ambassador to Suriname; former President and Director, National Building Museum, Washington, D.C.; Vice Chairman, Trustees’ Council, National Gallery of Art; member emeritus, Board of Visitors and Governors, Washington College

Daniel Aaron, Victor S. Thomas Professor Emeritus of English and American Literature, Harvard University; author, Unwritten War: Writers of the Civil War

Steven ClemonsExecutive Vice President, the New America Foundation, Washington, D.C.; former Executive Director, Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, Washington, D.C.

Dennis Fiori, President, Massachusetts Historical Society; former President, Maryland Historical Society

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University; Director, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research; 1981 MacArthur Fellow; founder, Black Periodical Literature Project; editor, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature

Jack S. Griswold, former Interim President Washington College, former Chairman, Washington College Board of Visitors and Governors; Director and Senior Advisor, Brown Investment Advisory Trust Company; Trustee, Maryland Historical Society

Ronald Hoffman, William E. Pullen Professor of History and Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, College of William and Mary; author, Princes of Ireland, Planters of Maryland: A Carroll Saga, 1500–1782; coeditor, Perspectives on the American Revolution (15 vols.)

John RobertsDirector, the Starr Foundation; former Chairman and CEO, American International Underwriters; former Vice Chairman of External Affairs, American International Group; Trustee, Corcoran Gallery of Art; member emeritus, Board of Visitors and Governors, Washington College

Thomas O. Stanley (Deceased), Retired engineering executive, RCA; pioneered technology leading to the development of the digital video disc

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University School of Public Policy; Visiting Fellow, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland; former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice

Ted Widmer, Former Director and Librarian, John Carter Brown Library, Brown University; former Director, C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, Washington College; former Director for Speechwriting, National Security Council

Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History, Brown University; author, The Radicalism of the American Revolution; 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History; 1970 Bancroft Prize

From Philadelphia and Points Due North and Northeast

Take I-95 South to Exit 1-A (Middletown/Route 896 South). Follow 896 approximately 10 - 15 miles where it will merge with Route 301 South. Continue straight on Rt. 301 South into Maryland. Take Galena exit (Rt. 290 South) and turn right at bottom of ramp. At stop light, go straight on Rt. 213 South. Follow to Chestertown. In Chestertown, pass the Washington College main campus entrance on your right, proceed through three more traffic lights, and make a right at the fourth traffic signal onto Cross Street. Turn left at first traffic light onto High Street, follow to end of road—the Custom House is on the righthand corner next to the river.

From Baltimore, BWI Airport, and Points Northwest
From Baltimore beltway 695, take I-97 south toward Annapolis, then Rt. 50/Rt. 301 east toward Annapolis and the Bay Bridge. Follow Rt. 50/Rt. 301 East past Kent Island, then take Rt. 301 North toward Wilmington at Rt. 50/Rt. 301 split. After about 7 miles, take Rt. 213 North exit toward Centreville and Chestertown. After crossing the Chester River bridge, turn left at the first traffic signal onto Cross Street. Turn left at first traffic light onto High Street, follow to end of road—the Custom House is on the righthand corner next to the river.

From Washington D.C. and Points West
Take the route of your choice to Rts. 50/301 East and follow the signs for Bay Bridge/Annapolis. On the Eastern Shore continue on Rts. 50/301 until they diverge in Queenstown and proceed North on Rt. 301. Exit Rt. 301 at Rt. 213 North. After crossing the Chester River bridge, turn left at the first traffic signal onto Cross Street. Turn left at first traffic light onto High Street, follow to end of road—the Custom House is on the righthand corner next to the river.

From Points South
Take either the Washington Beltway (I-495), I-95, or Rt. 301 to Rts. 50/301 East and follow the directions outlined above.

For further directions, call the Center at 410-810-7161, or email aceruzzi2@washcoll.edu.

Through its fellowship programs, the Starr Center supports innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to the American past – especially by fostering the art of written history. Visiting fellows find a place where they can retreat from daily responsibilities and focus on their writing projects – but also where they are stimulated by interactions with students, faculty, and distinguished visitors.

The Center’s Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship supports outstanding writing on American history and culture by both scholars and nonacademic authors; it offers a $45,000 stipend for the academic year, plus living arrangements and other benefits. The deadline for the 2020-2021 Fellowship is November 15, 2019.

The Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Library Fellowship is open to applicants from a wide range of disciplines who are pursuing projects on the literature, history, culture, or art of the Americas before 1830. The award supports two months of research and two months of writing. The stipend is $5,000 per month for a total of $20,000, plus housing and university privileges. The deadline for the 2020-2021 Fellowship is March 15, 2020.

The Chesapeake Heartland is a new collaboration between the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Washington College, and a diverse array of local organizations including churches, schools, youth groups, non-profits, and public institutions. Its mission is to preserve, digitize, interpret, and make accessible materials related to African American history and culture in Kent County, MD and beyond. To help make this a reality, Washington College will be awarding fellowships for community members and faculty/staff over the next three years that collaborate with others to preserve and interpret African American history and culture in the Kent County region. The deadline for the 2020-2021 fellowship is January 10, 2020

The Center also offers other short term fellowships in Chestertown, as well as special student research fellowships for Washington College undergraduates.

The town and its rural surroundings of Kent County both have populations barely larger today than at the time of the American Revolution (4,000 in the town, 19,000 in the county). This part of Maryland’s Eastern Shore has been called “America’s last great 18th-century landscape”: a patchwork of wheatfields and tidal waterways, sparsely strewn with farmsteads and crossroads villages. Many families have been in the area since colonial times. Traditions, oral histories, and a sense of place run deep.

Yet Chestertown also lies near the center of the teeming mid-Atlantic corridor. The town sits just past the eastern fringe of the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, 90 minutes south of Philadelphia, and less than three hours south of New York. The museums, libraries and cultural institutions of these cities are within easy reach. And increasingly, Chestertown and its surroundings are attracting newcomers, retirees, and weekenders from the nearby metropolises. Chestertown was noted in the 18th-century for its cultural energy – accounts tell of scientific lectures and Shakespeare performances – and the new arrivals have reawakened this long-dormant scene, launching galleries, bookshops, and theaters, often in partnership with area natives. With its proximity to the nation’s capital – the Beltway is barely an hour away – Kent County also draws many diplomats, public servants, and other Washington, D.C., figures.

In colonial times, Chestertown was a flourishing international port; its customs records note local vessels bound for the Caribbean, Europe, West Africa, and beyond. It also lay squarely astride the main north-south overland route along the Atlantic seaboard, halfway between the plantations of Tidewater Virginia and the burgeoning urban center of Philadelphia. (Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and others frequently passed through town on their way to and from sessions of the Continental Congress.) The first national Census, in 1790, would even pinpoint Chestertown as – statistically speaking – the center of population in the United States. The lofty ambitions of Washington College’s founders are vividly attested by the fact that the first college building, on a hilltop above Chestertown, was the largest structure of any kind in North America when it was built.

The town’s layout of streets and squares has barely changed since its era of peak prosperity in the mid-1700s, and its downtown – designated a National Historic Landmark – encompasses dozens of historic structures from the 18th and early 19th centuries. Like Williamsburg before its discovery by the Rockefellers, Chestertown was preserved by isolation and economic stagnation. (Henry F. du Pont, the founder of Winterthur, collected so many historic furnishings and interiors here in the 1920s that he named his Long Island estate “Chestertown House”).

The community’s historical connections extend far beyond its architecture, however. Its story is intertwined with the long American narrative of freedom and slavery. In the 17th century, Catholics, Puritans, and Quakers settled on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in search of religious liberty. In the 18th century, Chestertown merchants led protests against British tyranny, Chestertown mariners commanded warships in the Revolution – and some of these same merchants and mariners also participated in the cruel trade that brought slave ships to Chestertown’s wharves. In the 19th century, Chestertown’s loyalties were divided between North and South (its Civil War monument honors soldiers from both sides, many with the same last names), and more than 400 African-Americans from Kent County enlisted in the Union Army to fight for their freedom. In the 20th century, Kent County’s public schools were among the last in the country to desegregate, and the Freedom Riders marched up Chestertown’s High Street.

Kent County represents a living laboratory of the American past for Washington College students and faculty. Its courthouse records stretch back unbroken to the 1650s, and many local attics hold caches of family papers almost as ancient, but few scholars have yet mined these riches. The Starr Center is already finding innovative ways to do so. To mark Chestertown’s 300th anniversary in 2006, the Center sponsored a weekend-long symposium examining three centuries of American history from the vantage point of this one community.

Resources in African-American history are especially rich here, spanning three-and-a-half centuries. The Starr Center has supported oral-history and archival research by students, scholars, and creative artists who have drawn upon these resources for a variety of projects. In the summer of 2007, it sponsored “A Chesapeake Journey: From Slavery to Freedom,” a travel program for Washington College students and regional history teachers that explored both famous and little-known sites around the Bay.

Indeed, Chestertown has become something of a Mecca for public history of late. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors witness a reenactment of the Chestertown Tea Party, a 1774 incident in which patriots reportedly dumped British tea into the Chester River.  And between 1998 and 2001, the entire community came together to build the Schooner Sultana, a faithful replica of a 1768 Royal Navy vessel that patrolled American waters in the years before the Revolution. Docked 100 yards from the Starr Center, the ship is owned by Sultana Education Foundation. The Starr Center has worked closely with Sultana  Education Foundation on many public programs, and sponsors sailing programs for students, faculty, and special guests aboard the historic schooner.

The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience is named in honor of Cornelius Vander Starr.

Starr was an entrepeneur who founded a family of insurance and financial service companies now known as American International Group. In 1955 Mr. Starr founded the Starr Foundation, a philanthropic organization which makes grants in a number of areas, including education, medicine and healthcare, human needs, public policy, culture, and the environment.

For his complete biography, click here.

As part of its mission to engage as wide an audience as possible, both academic and non-academic, and to uphold the literary craft of the historian, the Center’s staff and visiting fellows are actively engaged in research and writing about American history.

In the years since its founding, publications originating at the Starr Center have included several books on the American experience as well as dozens of articles in such publications as The New York TimesBoston GlobeChicago TribuneNational GeographicThe American ScholarAmerican HeritageSmithsonian, and many others. 

The following are some selected works that have been published by the Starr Center’s staff and fellows during the past few years.

Books: