Col. John Harvie (1747-1807), an Albemarle County lawyer, came to Richmond in 1781 to assume a post as registrar for the Virginia Land Office. Harvie, a Revolutionary War veteran, the city’s fourth mayor and a signer of the Articles of Confederation that stitched the young United States together, amassed 1,200 contiguous acres on the outskirts of town.
Harvie’s land extended from present-day Park Avenue to the James River and into what became known as Oregon Hill, then called Belvidere for the mansion there.
Around 1797, Harvie commissioned young British-born architect Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) to design a two-story brick mansion commanding one of Richmond’s highest ridges. Latrobe envisioned a state-of-the-art cosmopolitan neoclassical design. He maximized the panoramic view of the James River by using a triple “Wyatt window” and a bow in the southern rooms.
The most elaborate of these ideas were never built. Samuel Mordecai, the chatty author of Richmond In By-Gone Days, claims Latrobe and Harvie disagreed. Maybe. While making Harvie’s house, Latrobe was also building the “Big House” — the Virginia State Penitentiary, almost next door.
Thomas Rutherfoord, who didn’t want the pen located two blocks from his home, near present Linden Row, instead deeded a “secluded and wooded dell” to the state. The prison went where the Virginia Housing Development Authority now stands.
Perhaps Harvie was displeased with both Latrobe and the nearby prison. So he flipped his own house.
Latrobe’s concept, built or not, influenced Richmond domestic architecture, like that of Bostonian Alexander Parris (1780-1852), who designed Wickham House (1811-1813), now part of the Valentine Richmond History Center, and the Executive Mansion of Virginia.
Harvie purchased the older (circa 1757) Belvidere, a two-story frame structure, with wings, a north-facing portico and a southern view of terraced gardens and the cascading James. That plantation was first built for the suicidal spendthrift William Byrd III.
Another veteran of the Revolution and a successful merchant, Col. Robert Gamble (1754-1810), moved his family into Harvie’s old digs and bestowed his name upon the place. A random collection of outbuildings sprouted up, and a terraced garden adorned the hillside.
Gamble’s Hill was separated from the clustered main town by ravines and gullies. To the west, behind today’s Virginia War Memorial, was Harvie’s Mill Pond or the Intermediate Basin and boatyard, part of the canal system.
During the 19th century, Gamble’s Hill flourished as a neighborhood known for an exquisite collection of wrought-iron work and notable architecture, the Christopher Newport Memorial Cross and park promenade, and the crazy turreted Pratt’s Castle. From the 1830s on, the burgeoning business of Tredegar Iron Works and other factories became a welcomed part of the vista.
By 1852, the now stuccoed Gamble manor passed from its heirs and was called the White House or Gray Castle. McGuire’s University School held classes there during 1876-1888. Founded in 1865 by John Peyton McGuire Jr., the institution gave no diplomas and graduated students when the headmaster thought a pupil was ready. One was Lewis F. Powell Jr., later a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
The school moved to Belvidere and Main. The mansion was thereafter demolished. On the approximate site is the 1954-1956 Colonial Revival international headquarters of NewMarket Corp., the parent company of Ethyl Corp. Visitors sometimes mistake the building for the Virginia Capitol or the Executive Mansion.
Most of what remained of Gamble’s Hill was razed for Ethyl’s corporate campus during the 1960s.