Rolling hills and a sprawling park lead to the beautiful mansion that sits on a hill. Its detailed architecture and lavish decor are frozen in time as the legacy of the mansion in Maymont has been sealed into its bygone generation, waiting to reveal its ever-present charm of the Gilded Age to the 21st century.
If you grew up in Richmond, then at some point you have been on a school field trip to Maymont. The farm animals and seemingly endless bamboo forest make it the perfect playground for an elementary school child, and years later you might return to have a picnic or two on its sprawling lawns. However, it’s unlikely you have walked through the doors of the residence which once belonged to the family who began it.
RVA Magazine had the privilege of receiving a private tour of the Maymont mansion with Curator and Director of Historical Collections and Programs, Dale Wheary, to learn about its past, its construction, and to understand how the mansion functioned as the living, breathing home of Mr. and Mrs. James H. Dooley.
“The important thing to me has been helping the public see Maymont in the context of the times,” said Dale Wheary. “Some historic sites are important because they were the homes of national figures, and Dooley was, in his time, involved nationally. Some places are historic sites because they’re built by an important architect, or sometimes because an important event took place there. Maymont is one of those.”
She went on to say, “It has a basis for a national registered status and it’s representative of its time, of an architectural type of its time. It’s an ornamental estate that flourished in this period, the Gilded Age. We’re interpreting the Gilded Age, the people that lived here, Maymont as a home, and Maymont as a workplace.”
Maymont was open to the public only six months after Sallie Dooley’s death in 1925, but very few first-hand accounts survive from the Dooley’s themselves. All of the Dooley’s papers, records of sale and personal documents were destroyed after her death as a customary means to protect the privacy of the deceased, meaning much of the history we know about the mansion today was collected from first-hand accounts, newspaper clips, and family members.
Luckily, these various means to information have painted a relatively clear picture of life in the Dooley house, even over 90 years later.
John and Sarah Dooley came to America from Ireland, and like most immigrants of their time, hoped to make a prosperous life in their new country. After marrying in Alexandria, the couple moved to Richmond and John Dooley set up a hat shop on Main Street. A charismatic, philanthropic man from a prominent Roman Catholic family, Dooley quickly entered the elite social circles of Richmond and his hat business flourished, selling them throughout the South and amply providing for his wife and nine children.
One of these children was James Henry Dooley, who in 1856 left home to study at Georgetown University. He graduated at the top of his class and was beginning his graduate degree when the issue of secession arose, at which time he returned to Richmond to join the Confederate army with his brother, John. He joined his father’s Southern-Irish militia, the Montgomery Guards, but was wounded as a private in the Battle of Williamsburg by taking a bullet to his right wrist. Later in life, he was commonly referred to by the honorific “Major.”
After the war, James Dooley finished his graduate degree and became an attorney, doing quite well despite the economic challenges in post-Civil War South. Unfortunately, his father’s hat company burned down during Richmond’s evacuation fire. Although John Sr. wanted to rebuild it, he was getting old and simply couldn’t restore it.
John Henry met his wife, Sallie May, and they were married in 1869. As the young Dooley began to accumulate his own wealth, he began investing in a number of different railroad companies and was on the board for several of those companies, which included Richmond & Danville and Chesapeake & Ohio, now CSX. By the 1880s, Dooley’s railroad and real estate investments did so well he decided to discontinue practicing law and dedicate himself to business.
He and his wife began running in the same social circle as Lewis Ginter and Joseph Bryan, doing business with Bryan and Fred Scott. They traveled frequently and would sometimes take horseback rides through the counties outside the City of Richmond. It was on one of these rides in 1886 that they found a beautiful plot of land in what was then still Henrico county–a lovely hillside from which you could see the James River.
“He said they had set out from Shields Grove, riding down the hill, across the creek, up the hill, and came to this spot, the highest place on the property, the old oak trees, the beautiful views of the river, and they decided to buy the property and build their estate here,” said Wheary.
At the time, many members of the upper class were moving to the outskirts of cities to escape the congested streets and smog of a lately industrialized city. The area had been farmland during the 19th century and was complete with ravines, creeks, hills, lowlands and a beautiful landscape that led to the ornate estate.
In 1887 the Dooley’s hired Edgerton Rogers, an American architect who had grown up in Rome, Italy and had been hired by Lewis Ginter the same year. The house was excavated in 1889 and at 13,000 square feet, it was finally finished in 1893. It became their private park and was one of the first electric houses in the country.
“Maymont is very special, because it is the only largely intact Gilded Age ornamental estate that is open to the public and preserved in Virginia,” said Wheary. “This totality of the estate is the important thing.”
The Gilded Age, a period from the 1870s until WWI, was a short period in the American South that boasted economic growth whose style coincided with the Victorian era in England. Dooley was one of the Gilded Age millionaires, which showed in the style of the house, the objects that furnished it, and the staff they hired at Maymont, a name he chose taken from Sallie’s maiden name, May.
“One of the reasons Maymont is so special is because it’s so largely intact: the original acreage, the original landscape scheme, we even have many of the original plant materials, many of the trees go back to [the Dooley’s] time,” said Wheary. “In the house, they left the collection. It’s not everything they had, but the collection was selected from this home and their summer home, Swannanoa, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Practically everything you see [was original to the house].”
Since the house was built nearly 40 years after the Civil War, no slaves were part of the construction of that house. They did hire an army of groundskeepers and gardeners: about 20 men who worked on the grounds, plus an estate manager who lived in a cottage at the Hampton Street entrance with his wife, and about 10 staff that worked in the house. Although the Dooleys had no children, they were often surrounded by nieces, nephews, and of course their employees, with whom they developed close relationships.
One of these employees was estate manager Mr. Louis Taliaferro (pronounced ‘Toliver’). “He would walk the grounds with Mrs. Dooley every day and get her recommendations on what to plant where and making orders for plants,” Wheary explained. “They ordered trees and plants from different nurseries from up and down the East Coast. He organized all of that work.”
When Taliaferro was interviewed by the paper in the 1940s, he discussed his work relationship with Mrs. Dooley and the details of maintaining their sprawling lawns. “She’s very particular,” he said, “but I knew how to please her.”
While the grounds of Maymont are lovely, everything inside the house is beautifully ornate, every detail is perfectly preserved and plays out like a film. The dining room is posed for dinner, as if at any moment the Dooleys will sit down as their butler, Mr. Dilworth, rings the service bell, signifying to the kitchen that dinner may be served. Maybe their Saint Bernard would come running through the room as the fireplace crackled in the front hall, and the maids finished up their workday. The Dooley mansion is truly frozen in time.
The collection Mrs. Dooley left after her death totaled about 1,000 pieces.
One of the remarkable pieces in their collection is a set of china plates, originally created for President Rutherford B. Hayes to sit in the White House. Because the project went over-budget, the White House permitted the company to make duplicate sets. There are only a few in the world, and the Dooleys managed to acquire one. It’s one of the largest collections of this particular sets in the United States.
Upstairs, the Dooley’s bedrooms further reveal their excess wealth. Mrs. Dooley’s bedroom is a vision of white and blue, with paintings and figurines of swans throughout the room. In the corner stands a magnificent swan bed, complete with her original mattress, which was brought from her summer home. Her vanity set, also original, was made by Tiffany and Co. and is made from sterling silver and narwhal tusks. Inspired by Viking ships excavated in 1903, Vikings were a popular theme at the time, and Tiffany created a ‘Viking revival’ line of houseware.
At least twice, the Dooleys held large parties with over 400 guests crowding into the house. For these events, they hired caterers out of Washington. However, on a normal day, Mr. Dilworth was the master and commander of every meal. Well-versed in proper dining etiquette and order of courses, he oversaw their dining experience as well as every aspect of the house.
“No matter whether they dined alone or if they had guests, the two butlers, the butler and the assistant butler, would stand in attendance here,” said Wheary. “All was done according to a high level of etiquette and propriety.”
William Dilworth, a black man, worked in the house as the head butler, a role which meant he was effectively head of staff. In addition to Dilworth, the Dooleys hired an assistant butler, cook, assistant cook, maids, and a laundress, among others.
“Mr. Dilworth lived in this neighborhood and rode his bicycle to work everyday,” said Wheary. “He and his wife had a family there.”
Much of the information Maymont curators have gathered about the domestic workers of the Dooley household is from descendants of the employees themselves, including the cook, Frances Twiggs Walker.
“[Descendants of the employees] told us little things about daily life, like there being a parrot in the kitchen who could talk,” said Wheary. “He said, ‘biscuits hot!’”
The heart of the mansion is in the basement. Refurbished to show what life would have been like for Maymont’s staff, the basement is also frozen in time to reveal a full, working kitchen, pantry space, servers’ quarters, and even bedrooms for the few staff who lived in the house.
“I felt that if we did not talk about the two worlds under one roof, then we wouldn’t be doing good history,” explained Wheary. “We wouldn’t be telling a full comprehensive story if we weren’t talking about Maymont as a workplace as well as a home.”
A house like Maymont was a desired place of work for those in domestic service: the staff was large so less work needed to be done, the family was wealthy but small, and the pay was good.
“Slavery was over, but the Jim Crow laws came in, and things became very restricted about which types of jobs people would qualify for, as well as impositions on individual rights,” said Wheary. “African-Americans filled these jobs when very few other options were available for them. The staff in the house was largely African-American.”
Mrs. Walker’s kitchen has a gas stove, a large table for chopping and rolling, and of course a talking parrot. Walker, a black woman, had many children who inherited her profession and would go on to work as head cooks at Maymont themselves.
“In the South, by virtue of the conditions and social order, the African-American community continued to fill these domestic service roles after slavery ended. In the South, it was an African-American story.”
People like the Dooleys did their best to look out for their staff, such as providing health care in a government that did not yet provide welfare and a country that did not offer equal rights to all its citizens. However, working in domestic service meant spending a great deal of time away from your own family while you catered to another’s.
“Those are things that we want people to understand about domestic service, to empathize with people who had little other choice than to work in domestic service.”
Although Major and Mrs. Dooley were kind, political ideology at the time was split many different ways and likely caused some interesting conversations at the dinner table.
“[The Dooleys] were people of their time. They generally bought into the ‘Lost Cause’ movement,” Wheary said, describing a movement that suggested the Civil War was a heroic endeavor, despite the Confederate defeat. “Major Dooley’s sisters, on the other hand–well-educated women from the South, their father saw to it that they were well-educated– they became very progressive. They sponsored African-American children at their Roman Catholic churches. They got involved with the suffrage movement early on.”
Major Dooley died in 1922, and in his will suggested to his wife she leave the estate to the City of Richmond to become a museum and park. Sallie died in 1925, at 85. She willed a great deal of her money to various charities and institutions around Richmond, including $500,000 to build the Richmond Public Library, as well as leaving generous gifts to each of her house staff.
The domestic workers received between $500 to $1,000 in Mrs. Dooley’s will. Frances Twiggs Walker was able to buy a home with the money.
Unfortunately, this left no money to the city to maintain Maymont, thus the Maymont Foundation was created.
It took only six months to open the property to the public. Mr. Dooley in his will expressed their desire that the city keep Mr. Taliaferro as the groundskeeper, a request which they granted. He remained in his cottage home at the Hampton Street entrance until his death in the 1940s.
Unfortunately, as time passed, the house entered a derelict condition. “The upholstery of chairs were falling out on the floor, silk wall coverings were dry rotted and hanging in shreds, coal dust that gathered over the years covering everything, shredded textiles, falling ceilings, so in 1970, you would have been horrified,” Wheary said. “The city began a small fund to clean up the grounds.”
However, in 1975, the Maymont Foundation took on the monstrous responsibility of raising the funds needed to maintain the property, operating as a separate non-profit to run the park and museum, which now costs $11,000 per day, or $3.3 million per year. Since then, the Foundation was able to refurbish the house, keep the grounds, and add well-loved Maymont spots we know today, such as the Nature Center and the Maymont Farm.
Yet the shining jewel of the grounds is still the Dooley mansion, steeped in history, its halls ringing with the clang of Ms. Walker’s pots, Mr. Dilworth’s footsteps across the carpeted floors, laughter of nieces and nephews come to visit, all overlooking the lawn and gardens of Maymont Park which now host Richmond’s picnics, weddings and school field trips alike.
And to think it all began with a hat shop.
*Photos by Landon Shroder