1 of 3
2 of 3
3 of 3
In 1906, five years before the design of Maymont's Japanese Garden, real estate and railroad magnate Major James Dooley was called to testify about his intentions for his land.
The city of Richmond was in the process of annexing 4 square miles of Henrico County, which included the former dairy farm that he and his wife, Sallie May, were transforming into an estate of rolling lawns. City officials thought that Dooley planned to develop the Maymont property like he had the neighborhood that we now call the Museum District. Dooley set them straight: He had no such notion, especially given the improvements his wife and their 22 employees had put into the property.
"Altogether we have made the place an ornament and credit to the city of Richmond," Dooley told a three-judge annexation court. "And when people talk about cutting it up into building lots and selling it, it sounds to me like vandalism."
The Dooleys created a place of beauty that included the Japanese Garden, which was finished by 1912. But some 60 years later, under city ownership, that garden and its features had suffered, leaving cement ruins, stagnant pools and no funds with which to revive them.
The Mysterious Mr. Muto
It's not known how the Dooleys and, in particular, Sallie May, landed on the idea of a Japanese garden, but the pair traveled extensively.
Stemming from an 1853 trade mission to Japan by the naval commander Matthew Perry, Japanese influences began entering the West. Tiffany & Co. imported Japanese artifacts for sale, and La Porte Japonaise in Paris made decorative screens, fans and porcelain available to collectors and devotees. Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 operetta The Mikado capitalized on the public's fascination with all things Japanese. William H. Vanderbilt's Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City, completed in 1882, included rooms finished in a Japanese style. John D. Rockefeller's 1906 country house Kykuit included a Japanese garden.
Working in the Northeast during the early 1900s was a Japanese garden master named Y. Muto and his assistant, Zuki.
Muto created a Japanese garden for Alexander Tison at his Grey Lodge estate in Tuxedo Park, a tony suburb of Denning, N.Y. John and Lydia Morris commissioned Muto in 1905 to create a "Hill and Cloud Garden" for their estate Compton, now the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. In 1908, Muto laid out Temple Gate Garden of Philadelphia's Fairmount Park.
Muto drops out of records until 1912, when he returned to Compton to work on the Japanese Overlook, a rocky stroll garden. After this, he traveled to England.
Reminiscences by Mrs. Dooley's great-nephew Fitzhugh Elder Jr., coupled with newspaper mentions by the Dooleys' estate manager, L.W. Taliaferro, indicate the involvement of Muto and Zuki with Maymont's Japanese Garden, which was constructed between 1911 and 1912.
The Dooleys chose marshy acres for this ambitious garden. Typical of Richmond, part of the city's past lay underneath the surface. The soggy bottom had served as a small turning basin for the James River & Kanawha Canal, and Sallie May Dooley began planning for the garden at the base of a quarry that likely supplied stone used around the estate.
The original garden began at the bottom of the 45-foot manmade waterfall that flowed over a natural granite outcropping. Both the waterfall and a nearby cascade received water provided by a small pump house on the property.
The arrangement of plantings, paths and large stones near the waterfall suggest that they were the likely the doing of the elusive Muto.
Maymont Director of Horticulture Peggy Singlemann explains that a Japanese nobleman's garden provided a visual metaphor for his realm. A single tree might stand in for a forest. Gravel and pebbles might mimic a waterfall and river. Specific shapes and contours allowed the ruler to view different parts of the country that he could not otherwise see.
"But just like we add on to a house, parts got added on or included in the Japanese Garden over the years that weren't intended for it and weren't specifically Japanese," Singlemann says.
An original feature was the grotto, a cave-like structure built utilizing actual stalactites and stalagmites collected from caverns in western Virginia. It had a raised reflecting pool and stone mosaic, giving it a formal and anomalous appearance.
After the Dooleys left the estate to the city in 1925, with no perpetual-care endowment, the grotto fell into disrepair along with the rest of the garden. Concrete replaced soft garden paths and arched, wooden moon bridges. And in a city that was increasingly cash-strapped, funds were short to keep up with the wear and tear.
Fashion and Flowers
In early 1971, renowned Miller and Rhoads hat designer Sara Sue spoke to Doris Roberts, then president of Chapter 130 of Ikebana International, a group devoted to the Japanese style of flower arrangement. Sue had returned from Japan, brimming with inspiration for hat designs. She wanted to hold a candlelight tea to show them off. Sue asked if Roberts and the Richmond Ikebana chapter could promote the idea. Roberts expressed delight at the prospect.
But what sounded like a perfect idea collapsed. Sue called Roberts in tears to say that Miller & Rhoads couldn't support an event without a philanthropic element.
"I thought very fast," Roberts recalls, "and said, ‘Oh! But we are, we support the Japanese Garden in Maymont.' "
Reiner Hendrickson, the city's cosmopolitan director of parks, thought the Ikebana-Japanese Garden connection an excellent fit. He and the group's board met, and the tea went on.
Miller & Rhoads considered the event a one-off, while Roberts and her Ikebana group wanted an annual event. "Then Billy Thalhimer came to our rescue," says Roberts. The head of the Thalhimers department stores offered advertising, the store's auditorium and assistance from the fashion and display departments.
The Thalhimers partnership with the Ikebana chapter established the spring Festival of Fashion and Flowers. The event outgrew Thalhimers and then the Jefferson Hotel, before finally moving to the Marriott Hotel.
The Ikebana event never was held in the Japanese Garden, due to cost and safety concerns, but the organization played a major role in raising funds for numerous important projects, including the addition of the Moon Bridge and a landmark Torii Gate at the eastern end, as well as the reconstruction of the viewing gazebo. Ikebana of Richmond eventually set up an endowment fund specifically for the Japanese Garden and to provide for a summer intern.
The Thalhimer family was invested in Maymont, and their interest ultimately led to the 1975 establishment of the nonprofit Maymont Foundation, which oversaw the property's stewardship and operations. Today, though the city still owns the property, the vast majority of the funds used to maintain it come from the Foundation.
Foundation president and preservationist Jim Glave asked landscape architect Barry Starke of Earth Design in Casanova, Va., to submit a proposal for a master plan to restore all of Maymont. Starke presented recommendations, including several restoration and renovation projects.
He suggested that the Italian Garden, due to its structure, was one of nation's best examples of an Italian Renaissance garden. He recommended restoration.
The Japanese Garden, in Starke's view, was too far gone to warrant restoration. Except for a small part near the waterfall, the place no longer resembled a Japanese garden.
He recalls, "Most of the area was a hodgepodge of chaotic waterways and two large lakes with masonry edges separated by a thin strip of land." An article from the time in a precursor to Richmond magazine describes the water elements of the Japanese Garden as "an interlocking series of stagnant pools."
Incongruent bridges, walkways and site furnishings built of concrete and steel throughout Maymont dated from the days when the property was under city management. Meanwhile, the Japanese Garden's terminus failed to supply a natural exclamation point. Here, Starke envisioned a cypress grove for "a cathedral effect."
Starke noted that mature trees, available stone and water provided the necessary materials to re-imagine Maymont's Japanese Garden, and that it could be the pre-eminent example of its kind on the East Coast.
Starke encountered resistance to making over the Japanese Garden. Some Maymont supporters believed that everything on the property needed to return to how the Dooleys had it when they lived there. This approach wasn't practical, because it would have meant the removal of the Native Virginia Wildlife exhibit, the Children's Farm and other popular post-Dooley-era additions, and the Maymont Foundation's board eventually voted to approve Starke's plan.
Planning for remaking the Japanese Garden began in March 1976 at a crucial time in Starke's life. His business partner, Fred Kines, was dying of cancer, and Starke got married. Starke and his bride, Laurie, toured gardens in Japan on their honeymoon.
The trip embraced 18 gardens in 12 days. Starke collected research materials and took more than 1,000 slides. He traveled with the idea that the revived Maymont Japanese Garden would be a strolling garden symbolizing the journey of water from the mountains to the sea.
Mystery and Illusion on a Budget
"The design challenge was to [use] the visual chaos of stone, plants and water to capture the essence of nature," Starke recalls.
For example, the present Central Lake that Starke designed was originally two bodies of almost equal size divided by a narrow strip of land. Period photographs revealed ramps in both lakes for launching Major Dooley's duck blind. The only component that was vaguely Japanese in this section was the presence of mature Japanese maples.
The challenge was to transform elements that didn't resemble a Japanese garden and, using limited funds, turn it into one. This meant making dramatic changes that didn't cost much and using available materials. They created a pool below the existing waterfall, reflowing the water features and adding a series of outdoor spaces. A spillway was built using granite curbstones, while granite windowsills became useful for bridges and decorative boulders. These were collected from Maymont itself, as well as the city of Richmond's salvage yard.
Starke credits the Japanese Garden's renewal to a federal employment-stimulus program, the Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC). "Fortunately, the mystery and illusion of the garden seemed to capture their imaginations and turned them into students of the art and advocates for the garden's success."
YACC members later returned to volunteer and maintain what they'd help make. The first phase of the Japanese Garden's restoration, budgeted at $2 million, was completed for $800,000.
Little House of the East
Junko Liesfeld, an Ikebana member since 1976, served on the committee to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the revived Japanese Garden in 2006.
When Liesfeld, who's originally from Osaka, Japan, came to Richmond in the early 1970s, her husband, Joe, wanted her to see Maymont's gardens. What she saw wasn't a Japanese garden but something in desperate need of cleaning and pruning. The successful pairing with Ikebana of Richmond helped the gardens become cleaner. "At that time, even before that, I thought that the garden had something missing," Liesfeld says.
She realized that aside from a nondescript park bench, there wasn't a place to sit and contemplate nature. Some form of pavilion was needed. A designer by trade, she took great care that the structure wouldn't overwhelm the gardens. It required a balance between size and safety for younger visitors. A small observation house perched on a ledge by the cascade, similar to one found in a Dooley-era photograph, was installed in 1985. Liesfeld's structure would be different.
After gaining Maymont's approval, she selected a site by the lake to create a building situated to give the impression that one was floating on the water. She refer-red to it as the Azumaya, or "The Little East House."
The purpose was not just to sit and rest but to gain another perspective on the garden. "You have a different eye level when seated. You end up seeing something that you didn't when you were walking."
The Azumaya was constructed off-site by Joe Liesfeld's construction company. Roger Swanson, the project carpenter, selected cedar trees that he cut and peeled. He and Liesfeld chose support poles with a twist, an imperfect but natural shape.
During the summer of 2006, the Azumaya was trucked in and carried to its home. Men got into the lake to place the posts and stone supports. The house opened with a moon-viewing party that September.
Some time later, Liesfeld visited the house and saw a mother sitting inside with her two small children. "I was so happy. These two children who were very active sat still next to mother, watching the koi in the pond. That's what I wanted, to give people a peaceful, restful time, that space."
Editor's Note: The author of this feature would like to acknowledge the assistance offered by Dale Wheary, Maymont's diirector of historical collections and programs. Her research into Maymont's development was invaluable in the creation of this story.