Mary Washington to the rescue: the most dramatic land save in the park’s history (and a home for the Kirkland memorial)


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.

Location and scale of proposed buildings gleaned from news reports

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.

An image from the Free Lance-Star showing work underway. That's the original section of the stone wall.

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. 

Russell Sullivan

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.

Photo by Donald Pfanz

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.]

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6 thoughts on “Mary Washington to the rescue: the most dramatic land save in the park’s history (and a home for the Kirkland memorial)

  1. John,

    It is horrendous to think that such an act could ever be considered on the (arguably) most historic part of the battlefield – right upon the original remaining section of the stone wall. How lucky are we that this was avoided. Thank God they had the foresight to recue this small piece of the huge history of Civil War Fredericksburg. Anyway, another excellent piece of the story – you all keep up the great work.

    Glenn

  2. One could argue the world of preservation is still plagued with the problems faced in the 1960s. Evidence? See Wilderness.

    • John –

      The Ebert House was razed in 1957. Surviving photographs of the house from that year show it to be boarded up and probably not lived in.

      Some interesting tidbits about the property – while we know the structure as the Ebert House, the first owners of the tract were Fontaine Maury, three-term mayor of Fredericksburg in the 1790’s and uncle of Matthew Fontaine Maury, and Seth Barton. The Eberts purchased the house and lot in 1858 from Absalom and Frances McGee. Absalom was the brother of Ebenezer McGee and during the war lived on the Chancellorsville Battlefield. Like his brother, Absalom was an ardent Unionist and was imprisoned three times for his outspoken views.

      – Eric Mink

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