Unhidden treasure: Rock Hill estate gardens revealed
The gardens of Rock Hill, a historic Park Street estate that's now the overgrown back yard of MACAA, the Monticello Area Community Action Agency, are getting a makeover thanks to some community activists.
Event host Sabrina Youry convened teams of volunteers on Sunday, October 10 to remove deadfall and debris from what she calls a "magnificent but neglected" eight-acre space. It was all part of a worldwide set of events conducted on 10/10/10 and said to consist of over 7,000 projects in 183 countries–- a “global work party” to fight global warming.
"What better way to bring appreciation/awareness/reverence for the environment than to offer the community a beautiful, accessible green sanctuary," Youry said in an email before the event. Afterward, Youry described the turnout as "great," with over 20 people showing up to lend a hand.
However, restoring the Rock Hill gardens has been on the radar of local preservationists for some time, especially after it was discovered in 2008 that the historic landscape would be affected by the interchange for the Route 250 Bypass and the future Meadowcreek Parkway (part of which opened Tuesday, October 12 as a temporary Rio Road construction detour).
Pedestrian and bicycle access into McIntire Park has been designed to pass through the intersection, but preservation activists argued that the Rock Hill gardens should have been studied as a place that would provide such access to McIntire Park.
Indeed, former City Council candidate Bob Fenwick has been organizing efforts to restore the gardens nearly every Sunday since July, and has provided updates on the progress on his website cvillecitizen.com.
In the 1960s, the property’s cluster of nondescript buildings fronting Park Street served as a segregation-era school called Rock Hill Academy. Before that, Rock Hill was a private estate whose main house has been demolished but whose extensive gardens comprise vast stone terraces recently gaining visibility from the U.S. 250 Bypass as the result of the clean-up.
The garden was designed and built in the 1930s under the auspices of Reverend Henry Alford Porter, the minister of the Charlottesville's First Baptist Church (Park Street) before retiring in 1945, who purchased the mansion from architect Eugene Bradbury in the 1920s. Bradbury, who did not design the mansion, purchased it in 1909. It burned down in the 1960s while Rock Hill Academy was using it for classrooms. Porter's garden included a series of boxwood arrangements, a monumental series of stone garden terraces with stone stairs and walks, a stream section along Schenck's Branch, a small lake on the southern boundary, and a woodlands section with stone switchback trails.
"The Rock Hill garden is among the most complex residential garden landscapes in all of Charlottesville," says Daniel Bluestone, associate professor of architecture at the University of Virginia.
"I believe that this was Reverend Porter's private "public works" project that aimed to provide work for the unemployed during the 1930s," adds Bluestone. "The rock for the walls and the paths and the terraces was all quarried on the site."
For years, though, the gardens have been hidden by neglect and the resulting overgrowth, a site perhaps scorned since the creation of the whites-only Rock Hill Academy which opened as part of massive resistance to court ordered desegregation. From 1980 to 1987 the site was also the home of the Heritage Christian School.
"The irony is that Reverend Porter was a progressive on issues of race," says Bluestone, "preaching tolerance, inclusion, and integration between the races."
In fact, Bluestone says that in his will Porter left his estate to Virginia Union University to establish an endowment for the training of African-American Baptist ministers.
However, had Bob Fenwick and the volunteers not provided a clearer view of the gardens to drivers on 250, much of this history, along with the garden itself, might have remained hidden.
"They are showing the extraordinary spaces and the fine bones of the garden," says Bluestone.
Worried that the City and the FHWA, the Federal Highway Administration, might not follow through on an agreement, according to a May 2010 memorandium, to restore the garden and add it to the park system, Bluestone says the current effort to restore the gardens is, in part, a "provocation to make sure the city and the FHWA deliver on the commitment."
"The gardens are really impressive," says Bluestone, "now that you can see them."
Note: This post originally appeared in short form on October 9, but was expanded on October 11.