Frank Greenwell are proof that playing dress-up and impersonating others
never go out of style.
The Greenwells transform into elegant historic figures when they step
into character as past owners of the Sotterley Plantation in St. Mary's
County. They also portray, from the 18th century, George Plater III,
sixth governor of Maryland, and his wife, Elizabeth; and from the 19th
century, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Briscoe. Wearing period costumes Pat
Greenwell creates after painstaking research, she and Frank Greenwell
breathe life into people who exist only as paragraphs in history books.
Pat Greenwell, retired associate director of the Mortgage Bankers
Association, and Frank Greenwell, an accomplished photographer who spent
43 years as a naturalist and taxidermist at the Smithsonian Institution,
began their interpretive work in 1975. They were asked to help host a
house and garden tour in Ellerslie in Charles County, home of Daniel of
St. Thomas Jenifer, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
"Our bicentennial was coming up - I just thought we had to do something
a little different to make this special," Pat Greenwell remembered. "So
I asked Frank, would you dress in costume?" He agreed and she threw
herself into research, tapping clothing experts at the Smithsonian and
poring over books that would help her understand how colonial garments
were made and what fabrics would have been used.
The result was a distinguished ensemble for Frank Greenwell - breeches,
an elegant ruffled shirt and a coat burnished with buttons - and for Pat
Greenwell, a lovely ball gown of yellow and gold brocade. The next year
they attended George Washington's birthday ball as "Squire and Mrs.
Greenwell," then went to Leonard-town's Colonial Ball. They were hooked.
Their garment collection - designed and sewn by Pat Greenwell in a
process she calls adapting, rather than reproducing, period designs -
now fills two closets. She is always on the lookout for vintage gloves,
handbags, lace, jewelry and fans. Frank Greenwell's tricorn hat is a
woman's felt hat he modeled after Washington's, with the help of a
Pat Greenwell said it takes about six months from the time she begins
conceptualizing a costume to when she wears it. (She still designs their
apparel but notes that some pattern companies now offer period dress
patterns.) She purchases fabric at the renowned G Street Fabrics in
suburban Washington, D.C., and finds trim all over the country. In
colonial times there were no left or right shoes, just two identical
shoes you had to break in, and that's what Pat Greenwell wears. Her
shoes come from Georgia.
Her clothes can be dressed up or down. A green satin ball gown becomes a
charming Christmas garment with the addition of a plaid overskirt. A
lace collar makes it suitable for afternoon tea. A velvet top changes
the look yet again. It can take two hours for Pat Greenwell to get
completely outfitted in gown, undergarments, hoops, accessories and
Frank Greenwell was born in Leonardtown in a Lawrence Street house still
standing. He traveled extensively for the Smithsonian, discovering in
the Dominican Republic a robin that represented a new species. He and
Pat Greenwell, a Florida native educated in upstate New York, moved from
Arlington, Va., to Leonardtown in 2007. They are devoted to the
Sotterley Plantation and serious about the personalities they portray at
the estate and at events throughout Southern Maryland.
Youngsters are usually quite curious about what's under Pat Greenwell's
hoop skirts, but as she reminds them, 18th and 19th century ladies never
showed their ankles … and neither does she. Staying true to historical
figures is important to the pair.
"You think about how these people would have acted and you try to put
yourself in their place, opening their home to others," Pat Greenwell