Images courtesy Maymont
Maymont is a testimony to the enduring affection that Major James Dooley (1841-1922) and Sallie Mae Dooley (1846-1925) had for one another and the city.
James Dooley, the son of Irish immigrants who settled in Richmond, was one of eight siblings. His father prospered as a hat maker, and the family was active in the parish of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church. James and his brother John fought in the Civil War as foot soldiers in the First Virginia Infantry. James was wounded at the Battle of Williamsburg, captured and confined until August 1862. He finished his service in the Confederate Ordinance Department. The subsequent rank of "Major" was a Southern honorific.
As a lawyer, Dooley earned a reputation as a brilliant legal mind, with sharp business sense and superb oratorical skills. He served in the Virginia General Assembly from 1871 to 1877. In 1880, Dooley and a group of associates joined the board of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, and together they expanded lines and improved the efficiency of Central Virginia's rail system.
Making his fortune through railroads and real estate, he was a great philanthropist, and while he and Sallie were childless, they both took great interest in the care of underprivileged children.
Sarah "Sallie" O. May grew up on Locust Grove plantation in Lunenberg County. Her mother, Julia Jones, died when Sallie was around 7 years old. She spent long periods of time in Staunton, Va., among her older, married sisters. In 1869, she married the busy attorney James Dooley. In 1886, they purchased the dairy farm that they transformed into Maymont.
She willed $500,000 to the Crippled Children's Hospital, $500,000 to the Richmond Public Library (making that institution possible after several attempts) and $250,000 to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. The sales of her jewels benefitted Episcopal missions. Maymont was given to the city for use as a public park and museum. It opened on March 1926.
Maymont Director of Horticulture Peggy Singlemann, her staff of five and 20 volunteers tend to Maymont's 100 acres. "Mrs. Dooley had 22 outdoor people," Singleman says of the estate's original groundskeepers. Mrs. Dooley, Singleman says, liked pink, blue and white, hence blue hydrangeas, pink peonies and blue flag irises.
The 6-acre Japanese Garden is a calm, shaded part of Maymont, removed from the main paths. In its pond, huge koi cruise, and here, too, dwell great blue heron and at least one kingfisher
Singlemann, who knows every branch, curve of the path, and curl of the Japanese Garden, pauses during a walk-and-talk describing the garden. What caught her attention were the ropes grasping posts that delineate the path. Some of the loops are higher up than others. Singlemann laughs, "This is a silly little peculiarity of mine." She adjusts the loops to a uniform level along the post's middles. This attention to detail is a small aspect of keeping the Japanese Garden pristine, despite the wear and tear created by some 500,000 annual visitors.
Ambling across the pond on a scattering of circular steppingstones, Singlemann notes that their presence isn't mere decoration. Their intention, as is the Japanese Garden's, is to slow you down. "You stand here and look," she demonstrates, turning a little, then a little more. "This way, you see the park somewhat differently from each angle," she says. One more step, turn, gaze, breathe. Another step, turn, gaze, breathe … —HK