Illustration by Victoria Borges
Dale Wheary, Maymont’s curator and director of historical collections and programs, arrives at work an hour early most mornings. She climbs 60 stairs, up past the Tiffany Studios’ stained-glass window, to her third-floor office in the tower at the front of the Dooley Mansion. It overlooks a panorama of the 100-acre estate that slopes to the northern bank of the James River.
Wheary arrives early because there’s plenty to do, especially as the estate prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary of opening to the public. Above all, she says, the ritual serves as a daily reminder of the park’s magnificence and the hard work that rendered it.
“I have the opportunity to gaze upon these treasures inside of the mansion every morning,” she says. “And then when I walk the grounds at lunch, I see why the Dooleys fell in love with the property when they first visited in 1886.”
More than 500,000 people pass through Maymont’s gates annually (It is the second most popular attraction in the region, behind only the James River Park System, according to an annual ranking compiled by Richmond Region Tourism). Visitors stroll along the path snaking through the grounds, pose for photos in the Italian and Japanese gardens and crane to catch a peek of rescued wildlife in its preserve. Picnickers repose on its rolling hills, and children play in the mist of the waterfall’s cascade.
James Dooley, a wealthy businessman, bequeathed the estate to the city, and it opened to the public in March 1926, just seven months after his wife, Sally May, died. (Dooley died in 1922, which is when the city learned of the couple’s extraordinary gift to it.) The couple left no endowment to operate and maintain the park, however, and the grounds and mansion fell into disrepair over the years. In 1975, a private nonprofit, the Maymont Foundation, was formed to maintain and restore the city-owned property.
During her 37-year tenure, Wheary has borne witness, and has contributed, to Maymont’s revival. Last December, the foundation published her retrospective on the property and its original owners.
To Wheary, the anniversary is a chance for all to renew their appreciation for one of the city’s most beloved places. A celebration is scheduled for Sunday, April 17, to mark the occasion. Admission, as always, is free.
For its longevity, brilliance and sheer beauty— and all the staff and volunteers who make it so — we name Maymont our Richmonder of the Month. —The Staff