Dooley-Era Aerial Photo of Maymont Discovered

The following post is by Dale Wheary, Curator/Director of Historical Collections & Programs, and Herbert Wheary

Last year Richmond architect Gibson Worsham presented an extraordinary gift to the Maymont Mansion Archives—an early bird’s eye view of Maymont that had been preserved among his family papers. In our age of drone photography this may not seem so important, but the Maymont staff was overjoyed to receive this important Dooley-era image of the estate. Any historical Maymont document that surfaces is a rare find, owing to the unfortunate decision to destroy all papers, photographs and drawings in the mansion upon the death of Mrs. Dooley in 1925. So with great excitement, we pored over the image to note details of the estate buildings, landscape and plant materials to see what lost features might be revealed. The image is extremely valuable as it shows Maymont during the Dooleys’ residence (1893-1925), but exactly when was it taken? And what were the circumstances of this early example of aerial photography in Richmond?

Instantly, we could establish that the photograph was taken prior to construction of the mausoleum, which was completed in 1923. It clearly shows the mansion, encircled by a concrete walk, only a portion of which survives, and the meandering walk crossing the lawn, which was restored in 1998 by the Garden Club of Virginia. The Italian Garden, completed in 1910, also is visible as well as the garage, the coop, the compost house, the water tower and the Victorian gazebo at the end of the curving walkway east of the garden. One lost landscape element is the walkway connecting the north side of the mansion loop road with Maple Row. We noticed, too, the line of trees that originally enclosed the south side of the outbuilding work yard, where after the Dooleys’ time WPA workers constructed a stone wall. The details of the Japanese Garden, completed around 1912, are unclear because of the angle of the view and the density of trees along the southern edge of the property. The roadway along the canal is visible as is the large pond that is now part of the Japanese Garden, and of course, the James River.

While many of the plantings are far from fully developed, we can spot several of the well-known Dooley-era trees that still grow here today—the Nordmann Fir on the mansion lawn near the end of the meandering walk, the Incense Cedar to the left of the service road not far from the coop, and the line of magnolias that border the Italian Garden pergola. The photograph shows the original American elms that lined the loop road, replaced in recent years with Princeton Elms by the Garden Club of Virginia.

Thanks to the volunteer assistance of Evelyn Zak and Herbert Wheary, we have been able to confirm the probable date and origin of the image. Fortunately, the image itself provides several hints.  On the left side and bottom, a window frame is visible, and there are blurred shadows across the photo that have now been identified as support cables that are either out of focus or moving. Taken together this suggested that it was taken from the gondola or cabin of an airship or dirigible rather than from an airplane, which in this period would generally have had an open cockpit.

Records show that in 1920, an Army airship lingered over Richmond taking photographs of key areas of the city. This airship, known as the Zodiac, was based at Langley Field, which was established near Hampton during WWI and had become the pioneering U.S. base for aerial photography. After WWI, while the Navy was given priority with regard to airships, the Army also wanted to expand its use of aircraft and at this time bought airships from our allies. From France, the Army obtained the airship which came to be called the Zodiac because of its manufacture by the Zodiac Company, perhaps best known for its inflatable boats. The other foreign-built airship acquired by the Army, the Roma, was also flown from Langley Field. [1]  But the gondola of the Roma and other airships used in the U. S. during this period did not have the Zodiac’s distinctive configuration of windows and cables. An examination of photos of the Zodiac showing its gondola tends to confirm that the photo of Maymont was taken from one of its windows.

In 1920, the Zodiac was making flights out of Langley to patrol the Chesapeake Bay region and to photograph landmarks. One purpose of the photos was to publish a picture-book of landmarks as seen from the air as a navigational aid for pilots.  Maymont being a spectacular landmark along the river was certainly a likely subject for this mission. Thankfully, this photograph survived to provide us with valuable documentation of Maymont as it looked during the Dooleys’ time. This rare early image of the estate affirms that the buildings, landscape and many of the same trees that we enjoy today have remained largely intact nearly a century later.

While we have answered some of the questions posed by this important addition to the Maymont Mansion Archives, we’ll probably never know if James and Sallie Dooley were watching with curiosity as the airship circled above their home in 1920.

[1] This airship made by Zodiac was officially designated U.S. Z.D.-1. The army also obtained an airship known as the Roma from Italy, which was also based at Langley Field. The Roma crashed and exploded on February 2, 1922 in Norfolk, Virginia taking 34 lives. This led to prohibiting the use of flammable hydrogen gas in U.S. airships and required replacement of it with inert helium. On May 6, 1937 at Lakehurst, New Jersey the airship era largely came to an end with the spectacular disaster that befell the German airship Hindenburg, which was inflated with hydrogen. Fortunately, the Zodiac did not meet with calamity, but in 1924 was sent to Scott Field, Illinois and refurbished, however it was soon put into storage and eventually scrapped. For the story of the Roma, see Nancy Sheppard’s The Airship Roma Disaster in Hampton Roads, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2016.