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The Dooleys’ Vision for Maymont

This Italian Garden photograph appeared in the newspaper when Major Dooley’s will was published in 1922.

On March 16, 1926, Maymont opened to an expectant public, about six months after Mrs. Dooley’s death.  Before that day, visiting the Dooleys’ home had been by invitation only, but thanks to their vision and generosity, Maymont became a museum and park which millions of people have enjoyed for the past ninety years.

When the Dooleys—then in their 40s with no children—purchased the property in 1886, they may have had little thought about its ultimate disposition. They quickly became immersed in their passion—creation of their dream home on the James River, a lavishly planted, ornamental estate with a stately, treasure-filled residence at its center.  Twenty years later at a city annexation hearing, James Dooley gave extensive testimony describing in detail all of Maymont’s amenities and beauties. Expressing his estimation of its value to Richmond, he concluded: “Altogether we have made the place an ornament and a credit to the city of Richmond.” Perhaps, by that point in time, the Dooleys were beginning to consider how they might eventually share their showplace with the public.

Over the years, most Richmonders had heard stories of the private paradise that lay beyond the wrought-iron gates of the estate.  But it was only upon the death of Major Dooley in 1922 that they first learned of the Dooleys’ plan to leave Maymont to the City of Richmond as a museum and park.  Bold headlines on the front page accompanied by photographs of the gardens gave the public a glimpse of the treasure that Richmond would inherit. Three years later, upon Mrs. Dooley’s death, Maymont was conveyed through her will to the City, which was again heralded in the headlines.

Unfortunately, no correspondence or diaries survive to reveal the inspiration of the Dooleys’ long-term vision for Maymont. (The answer to that question–and thousands of others that we have–went up in smoke immediately after Mrs. Dooley’s death—all of the family papers in the house were destroyed apparently in fulfillment of her final wishes. Quite a lamentable act indeed!)  But now we can see in the context of the time that their vision was a perfect marriage of several trends of the Gilded Age.  The enormous fortunes being built in America at the turn of the twentieth century coupled with a great wave of philanthropy and an expanding thirst for knowledge, self-improvement, and cultural development led to the founding of many museums, universities, libraries, symphony orchestras, and opera companies throughout the country.  The Gilded Age also witnessed the creation of public parks to beautify and improve the urban environment.   Everything was in perfect alignment for Maymont’s destiny as one of Richmond’s most beloved places and Virginia’s Gilded Age treasure!

Before Maymont was handed over to the City, inventories were taken, Mrs. Dooley’s jewels, according to her will, were sold to benefit foreign missions, and three of her nieces assisted the executors in carrying out Mrs. Dooley’s wishes regarding dispersal of silver and other gifts to family members. Also, according to her will, selected furnishings and artwork from the Dooleys’ summer home, Swannanoa, were added to Maymont pieces to form the museum collection.

Although the Dooleys chose not to leave an endowment for the ongoing care of Maymont, they left nearly $5 million to several Richmond charities.  For the annual care of Maymont, they recommended that the City allocate $4,000 per year – a far cry from the $12,000 now required per day.  They also specified that their trusted estate manager, Lewis Walker Taliaferro, continue in his role as an employee of the City and that he be allowed to continue living in the gate house.  The end of an era came in 1943 when he died, having worked at Maymont for 49 years. To manage the new museum, the City employed Lulu Bentley, the wife of Major Dooley’s secretary and the daughter of one of his closest business associates. The City also employed Georgia Anderson who had been Mrs. Dooley’s personal maid as well as a night watchman and five groundskeepers.

I’m sure they were all gathered to welcome the first visitors who entered on Tuesday, the 16th of March —a momentous day.  Richmonders were captivated, the beginning of a 90 year love affair.  Newspapers frequently reported accounts of the visitors’ enthusiastic response—and the challenges of managing the throngs, so overwhelming that police officers were required to control the flow of guests.

And since that time, people have continued to embrace Maymont with a passion, a passion that connects all of us who love this special place with the enduring vision of James and Sallie Dooley.

– Dale Wheary, Maymont Curator and Director of Historical Collections & Programs