The fresh air and open landscape of seemingly infinite trees, accompanied by the smell of fresh flowers, compliment a new fall day in my walk through Maymont. Originally untamed pasture and fields, the land was bought by James Henry Dooley, a wealthy Richmond-born financier, and his wife, Sallie May, in 1886. Sally May pioneered the transformation of Maymont from sprawling, open fields to a beautiful estate perfect for a outgoing millionaire. The Dooleys built the Romanesque-style mansion on the grounds of Maymont in 1893 and continued to fill it with diverse and expressive decorations, working on and cultivating the colorful gardens up until their deaths in 1922 (James) and 1925 (Sallie). Because they had no children and the estate had no heir, the property was bestowed to the City of Richmond after Sallie May Dooleys’ death. It was opened as a public park and museum only six months after her death, and in 1975 the Maymont Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was formed to run the estate for the City of Richmond.
Maymont has now become an epicenter of activity, especially for young families and nature lovers. While not quite a zoo or a farm, Maymont has animals that you would see in both. From traditional farm animals like cows, horses, and pigs, to predators like the bobcat and bear and bald eagle, Maymont has it all. With the petting zoo being closed for renovations and improvements, and no re-opening date scheduled, Maymont’s nature center provides a perfect substitute. The nature center has a friendly otter, venomous snakes, and freshwater fish, along with interactive science exhibits. The animal exhibits are spread out in such a way that they leave leave plenty of room for the more docile animals to roam around in their respective domains, but has enough beauty to keep the visitor interested between each habitat. Although the hilly nature of the park can prove a difficult trek, it adds to Maymont’s ambiance of nature in a mutualistic relationship with its inhabitants. Maymont uses its vast resources, but leaves its beauty untouched.
Nature is what truly makes Maymont special, and its gardens are no exception. With more than ten gardens, all with different themes, ranging from Italian, Japanese, Arboretum, and many more, Maymont allows itself to show something from every corner of the world. The Italian Garden was designed by Noland and Baskerville of Richmond towards the end of the 1800s. Completed in 1910, it now hosts gazebos, an expansive stone archway marked with “Via Florum” (flowering way), and seemingly unlimited flowers (opposite to traditional Italian Gardens, which often have few).
The ten specialty gardens are spread out masterfully around the estate and consist of both traditional herb and vegetable gardens and less familiar wetland and Rococo period gardens. While not as expressive as some of the other gardens, the Specialty Gardens show the true diversity of Maymont. Wetland Gardens show local Virginian greenery, where the Grotto is one of the few examples in the United States that shows a true Roman Rococo period, showing the darker aspect of nature.
The largest of all the gardens is the Arboretum. Consisting of all the different foliage and trees on the estate, the Arboretum has species native to Virginia and over 200 foreign species that were imported by the Dooleys. The trees have been expertly placed, giving them enough room to grow and flourish. Maymont takes its responsibility to maintain old trees and plant new ones seriously and has received assistance from Institute for Museum Services (IMS), America the Beautiful, and the Virginia Department of Forestry.
The most spectacular of all the gardens is the Japanese Garden. The Japanese Garden is quietly placed away from all the distractions of the rest of the park, and is a place where visitors can truly take in the beauty and peace that the garden offers. Its iconic look allows the visitor to feel the connection between themselves and their surroundings. The Japanese Garden is truly the most magnificent part of the Maymont experience.
Maymont has always been a captivating place for me to visit. As a child, I enjoyed watching the animals and running around in wide open fields. Now as an adult, it is a perfect place to go and be at peace. It is easy to get caught up in a frantic schedule, and Maymont allows for a peaceful break in the chaos. Its gardens, its nature center (which is closed on Mondays, as I found out the hard way), its inhabitants, and its free admission truly give a much needed connection to one’s surroundings. Maymont (open 10am-5pm October-March and 10am-7pm April-September) is a must visit for all age groups and will not be a disappointment.
Update: 10/18/16, 9:25 am: The original version of this article erroneously misspelled Sallie May Dooley’s name.