Maymont: Gilded Age on Display

Jan 3, 2016

Photo courtesy of Maymont
Credit Dennis McWaters

Christmas may have come and gone, but that doesn't mean the festivities have ended everywhere. In Richmond, more than half a million people visit Maymont each year -- a gilded age estate that's still decorated for the holidays.

Step through the doors of Maymont's stone mansion and you'll travel through time -- to the era of Vanderbilt and Rockefeller.

"When millionaires were building these fabulous, ornamental estates. They were not farms, but they were ideal worlds,” says Dale Wheary, curator at Maymont.

Wheary is also the author of a new book filled with over 100 photos of Richmond's most lavish estate and the story of its founders, the Dooleys -- a fabulously wealthy couple whose interest in european art, architecture and landscape forever changed Richmond.

Major Dooley, made his fortune rebuilding southern railroads after the Civil War and he stumbled upon this piece of property overlooking the James River in the 1880’s.

"They were riding across this beautiful countryside and went down the hill and crossed the creek and up the hill, and they came to this spot -- close to where we're sitting now -- the highest point on the property and they had a beautiful view of the river and ancient oak trees,” Wheary says. “They fell in love with the property."

Major Dooley and his wife settled here, building an estate and grounds that they would eventually bequest to the city when they died, to become the museum and public park it is today.

Today, the staff decorate Maymont for the holidays, imagining it as it would have been.

“When visitors walk in we have Victorian music box going in the background so people get an audible sense of Christmas,” Wheary says. “I think going back in time is really a romantic activity in itself.”

But, says Wheary, the biggest party of the year wouldn't have been Christmas or even New Year's -- instead it would have been in February, for George Washington's birthday. A huge party, catered by a famous New York chef.

"He came down with his entourage on the train and created candy sculptures for the dining room table,” says Wheary.

Flowers, ferns, and roses from the greenhouse would have decked the grand staircase. And at the top of the landing, an orchestra from the Jefferson Hotel would have serenaded guests.

"They had a light created to show off the Tiffany stained glass window, so all the guests could see that as they walked through the house,” Wheary says. "And Mrs. Dooley in the pink drawing room dressed in a gown by Worth, the famous Paris couturier. She's arrayed with opals and diamonds, and holding a mammoth bouquet of lily of the valley. With 400 guests in your house, it was quite an affair."

The holiday decorations at Maymont will stay up  through January 6th.