From John Hennessy:
In July 1963, Fredericksburg native and former Detroit Tiger turned developer Russell Sullivan (you can see Sullivan’s Major League stats here) acquired a small parcel of land along the Sunken Road just below historic Brompton and started planning a new apartment complex. One 72-foot long, 4-unit apartment was to face south, along Mercer Street; another of eight units was to face Brompton itself.
The National Park Service reacted with alarm, but due to “technical difficulties which we couldn’t overcome” (probably issues with the deed or a lack of money), Superintendent O.F. Northington was unable to acquire and protect the property. In early 1964, the bulldozers started to move, preparing the site for the apartments–just 25 feet from the original section of stone wall on the Sunken Road. Newspaper photos from the Free Lance-Star show piles of earth and heavy equipment in action. The site was a mess.
A hue and cry went up from history sorts, but with the NPS “dreadfully disappointed” and powerless (apparently) to intervene, and with the city absent any ordinance governing the protection of historic resources, all seemed loss. The bulldozers rumbled.
Then, like the South Carolinians pouring down the slope of Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862, so too rolled forth Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington). The college owned historic Brompton overlooking the site–it was and remains home to the president. Faced with an unexpected outcry, Mr. Sullivan (.267 lifetime average, 5 home runs) offered to sell if he could recover his investment and build elsewhere. Within a matter of days, Mary Washington struck the deal, stopping the bulldozers, and saving the land. Given the dire circumstances, it may be the most dramatic save of key historic battlefield land in the region’s history.
While all this was going on, the local committee for the Centennial of the Civil War (which was a low-key affair hereabouts), was working on erecting a monument to Richard Kirkland, the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” (Mac Wyckoff recently did an extensive series of posts on the Kirkland story and its place in history; you can find the first of them here). The plan until February 1964 was to put the monument immediately behind the NPS Visitor Center (ostensibly where our small picnic area is today). But the acquisition of the former Sullivan parcel offered a new opportunity, and the local committee quickly asked the college to allow the construction of the monument there. The college agreed, so long as it had approval over the landscape elements on the site. The new memorial by Felix de Weldon was delivered in September 1965. Its dedication was one of the last Centennial events to be held in Virginia.
But far more important was the seminal preservation (or rather, reclamation) of the parcel along the Sunken Road. In the 1990s, Mary Washington conveyed the land to the National Park Service. Today there is no hint that this place was once under dire threat–indeed partially destroyed. Instead it, with the memorial to Kirkland, has become a central part of both visitors’ attention and the park story.
[As an aside for you local folks: the next decade Mr. Sullivan would be one of two developers partnering to build the Executive Office Plaza on Caroline Street–by a wide margin the tallest building in Fredericksburg. He would also be a major supporter of the YMCA; indeed, the gymnasium in the Butler Road Y is named after him.]