Sarah Walor photo
Richmonders familiar with lamenting losses to the city's greenscape will probably identify with this quote, unearthed by historian T. Tyler Potterfield while researching his new book: "What would other cities give for all the chances we have thrown away?"
The author in question was historian Samuel Mordecai, writing before the Civil War.
Potterfield, in his recently published Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape, brings readers from the English arrival on the undulant hills of the James River in 1607, where John Smith proclaimed the idyllic future site of Richmond as "Nonesuch Place," to the evolution of the municipal-parks system in the 19th century and the master-planning era of the 1940s.
Potterfield, a Richmond city planner, is a frequent lecturer on matters of architecture as well as public parks and open spaces.
"Certainly in Mordecai's time there'd been egregious degradations of the city's natural resources," Potterfield says. "But not everything that happened was bad."
In the plus column over the years: The site of the Virginia Capitol, with the designed landscape of its square, was the first of its kind in the United States; Hollywood Cemetery and the establishment of hillside parks were other influential developments.
A street grid system, however, on a series of rolling hills divided by deep ravines and often-flooding creeks, proved more advantageous for developers than for the natural surroundings. The polluting and near-death of the James River well into the mid-20th century has resulted in greater consideration for the environment in contemporary planning.
A major figure in the book is Col. Wilfred Emory Cutshaw, who overcame the city's parsimonious ways in the latter 19th century to create much of what became the city parks system. One of his legacies is the Byrd Park Pump House, which combined utilitarian function with social activity.
The book's 64 images and maps offer readers glimpses of the city they may never have seen. "There's a good bibliography, too," says Potterfield, ever the scholar. "If people want [to do] more research on their own neighborhood park, they'll be able to."
On Aug. 22, Potterfield leads a Valentine Richmond History Center tour of Byrd Park. The cost is $10. For more information, call 649-0711, ext. 319, or visit richmondhistorycenter.com.