Over the past few months, parts of the Fredericksburg battlefield have seen a real change in scenery. These changes include landscape restoration surrounding Chatham, the park headquarters, and the Richardson House, which sat atop Marye’s Heights, one of the park’s most recognized geographic features.
In the past, such projects have been subject to harsh public criticism, specifically by local environmentalists. One such case was landscape restoration in Manassas National Park in 2008.
However, it seems as though the public’s general consensus of the Fredericksburg project was that it did a great deal of good, with no evident harm.
“If you don’t have the landscapes where the battle was fought, you don’t have much of a park,” explained Eric Mink, the cultural resources manager of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Park. Responsible for the paperwork and research regarding the park’s cultural resources, Mink knows every step of every process it took to get the job done.
Mink explained the first restoration endeavor: the clearing of one hundred trees around Chatham. Chatham, an eighteenth-century plantation house that overlooks the Rappahannock River, has a history that dates back to colonial times.
During the twentieth century, Mink said, “the trees have grown up and obscured the view [from Chatham]. So, when you visited Chatham, you would lose the historic perspective.” Since Chatham was originally utilized as a military base—due to its tremendous view over the surrounding area—and later as a hospital, loss of this perspective leads to a diminished historic experience for park attendees.
Chatham sits atop a ridge. All clearing was done forward of the ridge, on the slope moving towards the river. Taking special concerns such as river erosion and disturbance of natural resources into account, the national park successfully removed the trees. Surprisingly, the typical chop-and-pull method was not utilized: chopping the trees and pulling up the stumps. “Instead of carrying up the stumps, we came in with a grinder and ground the tree stumps,” Mink explained.
Now, this reestablished view allows guests to experience the view from Chatham as it was during the Civil War. Allowing this view to live on helps the park live out its intended job— to provide guests with a historically significant experience.
According to Mink, the clearing of the trees has mainly been met with positive reactions from the public.
The second restoration project the park underwent this past year was the removal of the Richardson House, which sat atop Willis Hill on Marye’s Heights. The Richardson House dates back to 1888 and functioned as a private home until 1948 when it was purchased by a Catholic order of nuns, the Daughters of Wisdom. The Daughters of Wisdom used the structure as housing for the order as they operated the attached Montfort Academy. The Richardson House was subsequently bought by the park in 1997, and the deconstruction of the school began by 1998. However, complications brought demolition to halt.
Although this structure has sat on the park grounds since the nineteenth century, the house is undeniably an insignificant feature of the park.
Explaining the precedent for removal, Mink told that, “there is a standing policy that structures which do not have any national significance, and have no purpose to us, must be removed.”
Over the course of the Richardson house’s occupancy, up until 1997, numerous additions and alterations occurred. Such changes diminished the house’s historical value, which already lacked relevance to the ground’s Civil War story. After the closing of the road at the base of Willis Hill in 2004, access to the Richardson House was terminated. Thus, plans got back underway to finish the demolition.
Before removing the house, park officials consulted with architectural historians to ensure there was no historical or architectural significance to the building.
“The result of that analysis was ‘no’— the building did not meet any of the requirements for national significance,” explained Mink. Essentially, since the building met its completion between twenty to thirty years after the Civil War, it added no value to the park’s property. Thus, the consensus was to remove it from the property. Cost of the project was $60,320.
Reflecting on the impact of the restorations on the park, Mink said that “in its entirely, I certainly think its a benefit to the park. The view from Chatham is phenomenal, and the removal of the Richardson house has made a tremendous contribution. Its removal has opened the landscape up and given a better perspective of the property.”
Moving forward, the general hope is that these changes allow for easier maintenance for park officials and improved historic experience for park attendees.