Chatham Gardens History
In the early 1920’s, Chatham was purchased by Colonel Daniel Bradford Devore and his wife Helen Stewart Devore. The Devores took on the challenge of fixing the aging property that had been so badly damaged during the Civil War and the subsequent years. The first change that the Devores made was changing what was considered the front of the house from the west side, overlooking the Rappahannock, to the east side. With the change in modes of transportation, it made more sense to change the entryway as well. The other major change they made was adding a large walled-in garden where an old cornfield once stood; the Chatham Gardens.
Ellen Biddle Shipman
In 1922, the Devores contacted landscape artist Ellen Biddle Shipman to create the garden of their dreams. Shipman was a highly sought after landscape architect that was one of the few women to break through what was a male-dominated industry at that time. Shipman took into consideration the setting and style of the home when creating the layout of the gardens. She was able to seamlessly create a beautiful garden that looked as though it had always been there.
Shipman’s landscape plan included several different genus of flowers, trees, boxwood parterres, a small pool, and more. At the time of the Chatham commission, Shipman was at the height of her career and the Chatham gardens would arguably be one of her most well-known projects.
The Final Private Owners
In 1931, John Lee Pratt and Lilian Thomas Pratt purchased Chatham from the Devores. At that time Pratt was one of the wealthiest men in America and purchased Chatham as a retirement home. In 1938, the Chatham Gardens were featured on the Garden Club of Virginia’s Historic Garden Week Tour, which created an influx of people that wanted to take a look at the beautiful gardens. After seeing some of the historical photos, it’s easy to see why.
Simplifying the Garden
The Pratt’s enjoyed the beautiful gardens and dutifully maintained them until after Lilian’s death in 1940. At that time the country was in the midst of World War II and the Pratt’s gardener was pulled into military service. Due to the lack of privacy from the garden visitors and the labor-intensive nature of the gardens, Pratt contacted another well-known landscape artist, Charles Freeman Gillette in order to simplify Shipman’s designs. Gillette changed the stepping stone paths, removed the more labor-intensive flowerbeds along the axial walks, and completely removed the parterres.
Upon his death in 1975, Pratt willed Chatham Manor and 85 acres of the surrounding land to the National Park Service. The gardens at Chatham currently reflect the changes that Pratt requested. Although the gardens have changed greatly from Shipman’s original design, they are still absolutely beautiful. There are few photos that remain of the original gardens; luckily some of the photos are displayed inside Chatham.
The gardens are a quiet retreat from the hustle and bustle of downtown Fredericksburg, just a short distance away. When you pull into the parking lot, the gardens are the first thing that you see as you approach the house. Each time that I’ve visited, the gardens looked completely different. Obviously spring looks very different than winter, but the gardens vary from month to month as well. I couldn’t add all of the photos into this article, but I have a lot of the photos on my Instagram and my Facebook pages.
It’s very easy to lose yourself in the beauty of the gardens. Even though the gardens don’t look the same as they did when they were first created, they are still breathtaking. There are so many intricate details, so many statues and flowers to look at; with over 50 types of flowers and trees on the property, several statues in various sizes, walkways, archways, you won’t be bored.
There is no entry fee to walk around the gardens, or to explore the house, so there is no reason to not visit if you are in the area. Chatham is a perfect example of simple adventuring that could last several hours (more or less if you’d like.) For the most part, there are not a lot of visitors, so you don’t have to worry about being shoulder to shoulder with people. The only time I had to wait a couple of minutes to get a good shot was during the spring; Chatham is very popular with brides and wedding photos.
Friends of Chatham
I can’t imagine the cost or effort that it takes to maintain this piece of history, luckily there is an amazing group of people that provide additional funding and assistance for Chatham; the Friends of Chatham have been pivotal in assisting a lot of the upkeep and maintenance. I have overheard that work is underway to bring the gardens back to a more similar look to what Shipman had originally designed. Since doing the research for this post, I have definitely become much more acquainted with the history of this amazing property and I am pretty excited to see the Shipman gardens come alive again! Who knows, maybe if they have volunteer opportunities, I may just get out there with a shovel! How awesome would it be to help recreate history!
As always, I appreciate you reading through my Adventure ramblings. I would love to hear your thoughts and I would definitely love to hear about YOUR adventures.
Until the next Adventure,