Tuesday, July 25, 2017  

Gardens and Grounds: Exerpt From First House


By Mary Miley Theobald

The men who moved the capital from Williamsburg to Richmond envisioned Shockoe Hill as a parklike expanse anchored by Jefferson’s Capitol and a residence for the governor. But years after those two structures had been completed, the grounds remained in dire condition, cut by ravines and gullies, overgrown with scrub, and home to more goats than humans.

In 1816, Governor Wilson Cary Nicholas (1814–1816) and the General Assembly authorized French engineer Maximilian Godefroy, then living in Baltimore, to tame the top part of the hill now called Capitol Square. His baroque plan enclosed the area and the mansion with a cast-iron fence, one that was removed in 1954 to make way for the brick walls that still exist today. It took Godefroy five full weeks to figure out how to deal with the impossible topography—how to lay out semicircular terraces, walkways, fence lines, fountains, and an avenue to the Governor’s Mansion—before he could start to sketch out formal rows of linden and chestnut trees and other plantings.

He was paid $400 for his efforts, roughly $6,000 today. Richmonder John P. Shields took on the task of carrying out Godefroy’s ambitious plan. Nothing remains of this original layout. The oldest tree on the square, a large American elm, is perhaps one hundred fifty years old.

Style influences landscape as much as it does interior design, and in the course of two centuries, one vision replaced another as Capitol Square matured as a public park. Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, the square underwent its second major landscaping, courtesy of John Notman of Philadelphia, the same man hired by Richmond’s city council to design Hollywood Cemetery. Notman’s master plan included hundreds of native trees and shrubs such as tulip poplar, holly, and dogwood, along with preparations for the impending arrival of the gigantic George Washington statue, the base of which was intended to hold Washington’s tomb. (The tomb was never moved from Mount Vernon.) With fountains and curving pathways, Notman envisioned a more romanticized space than the formal Godefroy layout, which had never been completed. Once or twice a week, a band played on the grounds. The park was illuminated, probably with torches or cressets, and citizens promenaded up and down the paths, enjoying the music. Governor Wise and others opened the mansion to friends on such occasions. This is the landscape that prevailed until the two wings were added to the Capitol in 1904.

Richmonders took advantage of their central park. A fine day would see couples strolling along the flowered walkways, nannies pushing baby carriages, and children darting through the trees. Benches provided places to rest. Prison trusties raked leaves, weeded flowerbeds, and occasionally fed the squirrels. By unwritten rule, the park was reserved for whites only. African Americans entering the square were promptly warned away by guards.

First ladies often took the lead in designing the garden space around the mansion. Grace Phillips Pollard, who died in the spring of 1932 while her husband was in office, spent her final days planning an evergreen garden on the south side of the mansion. Her husband had it finished according to her diagrams. The azaleas, cedars, and boxwoods made a fitting memorial to a woman who left a legacy of dogwoods along state roads.

As new roads were built throughout the state, Governor Pollard found a way to beautify the grounds at minimal cost. At his request, the Department of Highways collected wild rhododendron from the roadways and transplanted them to the mansion at no extra cost to taxpayers.

But by the middle of the century, the mansion grounds looked forlorn. Governor and Mrs. Stanley turned to Charles Gillette, the landscape architect who had done work on their home in Henry County, to remedy the situation. Gillette, by then a Richmond institution, had previously designed gardens at the Virginia House and Agecroft Hall, and he had laid out the grounds of the University of Richmond’s new campus back in 1913. Gillette worked the way he always worked, walking the property and indicating to a scribbling assistant what should go where. He himself never drew a single plan. His approach emphasized the symmetry of the space, and he preferred a classical style, carefully detailed, and richly planted.

Going beyond mere plantings, he added a brick privacy wall around the back of the house and connected the old kitchen to the main house with a brick walkway and a balcony that overlooked the rear garden space. At the center, he placed a parterre and boxwoods. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s statue of the nymph Daphne, on loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, overlooked a small pool. A camellia garden was designed for the north side of the house. Ninety-seven Virginia garden clubs assisted with plant material. The work was finished in the nick of time for Historic Garden Week in April 1956, and the stunning results delighted the public.

Inevitably, over the years, Gillette’s garden design strayed. Plants die, dogs romp, children play, and flowerbeds vary. By the end of the twentieth century, the architect in charge of the house renovation, John Paul Hanbury, approached the Garden Club about using Gillette’s records and old newspaper photographs to restore the backyard to its earlier appearance. Starting from scratch (except for one large holly tree), the Garden Club accomplished the restoration in record time. When Historic Garden Week arrived in April 2000, Daphne posed gracefully in her spot beside the small pool, flanked by white azaleas and shaded by the large live oak Admiral Richard E. Byrd had planted so many decades earlier.

Almost since its beginning, the mansion has had a small greenhouse—sometimes two—in the backyard where the governor’s wife could grow flowers and potted plants to decorate the house. At any given moment, hundreds of clay pots lined its shelves and floors. For much of the twentieth century, friends of the governor’s family with a talent for floral arranging came regularly to keep fresh flowers in the public rooms. First Lady Eddy Dalton remembers volunteers arriving almost daily. State-employed gardeners used the greenhouse to grow seedlings for the flowerbeds, to force bulbs for indoor display, and to make hanging baskets. For many years, supplementary flowers came from the Women’s Correctional Center in Goochland, where inmates tended gardens as part of a rehabilitation program. The last greenhouse was removed in 1998 to provide access to the garage. At the time, it was hoped that money for a replacement might be donated, but the matter was not pursued, and the greenhouse has yet to be reconstructed.
Except for the annual Garden Week Open House, when a cadre of Garden Club volunteers spends all day decorating the mansion and all week tending to those floral displays, there are no regular floral arrangers. The mansion director buys what is needed from local florists. Sometimes the chef will cut flowers from the rose garden and create his own arrangements.

Starting in the 1840s, the mansion gardens and grounds were maintained by supervised prisoners brought every day from the nearby State Penitentiary. From the 1940s, the newly created Department of Engineering and Buildings took responsibility for the landscape, but continued to use convict labor. The Department of General Services replaced Engineering and Buildings in the 1970s. Since that time, inmates from the James River Correctional Facility continue the tradition of tending the Capitol Square grounds and the mansion yard.

One of the first projects undertaken by First Lady Maureen McDonnell was the planting in 2010 of a ­vegetable and herb garden to promote Virginia’s largest industry—agriculture. In season, the modest garden produces a bounty of cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries, squash, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, chili peppers, eggplant, beets, and carrots, along with herbs such as rosemary, thyme, basil, mint, and sage. Both gardens and grounds receive daily attention from Ronnie Wilson, Grounds Supervisor with the Department of ­General Services who rakes leaves, mows the lawn, plants pansies, trims bushes, tends the vegetables, and sweeps walkways. Maureen McDonnell also focused her attention on the last section of the front yard not yet renovated, planting redbud, dogwood, azaleas, holly, and boxwoods, all donated by Virginia nurseries and greenhouses. To promote Virginia’s burgeoning wine industry, she planted a small vineyard behind the mansion. “I learned that there was a Virginia law in 1619 that required every man over the age of 18 to plant and tend at least ten grape vines,” she said. “So in accordance with that law, we planted ten Chambourcin grape vines in the garden. Its 2012 harvest will be combined with juice from other Virginia vineyards to create the first-ever, statewide, blended red wine, a vintage we have named ‘1813’ in honor of the mansion’s bicentennial.”

Beneath the gardens and grounds are tunnels that connect the mansion to the Capitol, to a building at the Medical College of Virginia, and to a few other places. They were built in the 1930s to distribute steam to the buildings, and although they are not often used, governors and their families will confess that the tunnels can come in handy in wretched weather or when someone wants to avoid the press. Governor Wilder used to walk to the Capitol through the tunnel to dodge reporters. Governor Kaine and his family “escaped” through the tunnels one evening. “The press was camped out at the mansion watching Tim’s every move,” remembers Anne Holton. “It was right before the Democratic Convention when Tim was on the list of possible vice presidents. We wanted to go to our son’s college for the ROTC boot camp ceremony without reporters following us and bothering everyone when the focus should rightly be on the ceremony, not on us. So we escaped through the tunnel laughing and singing The Sound of Music!”