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Maymont Mansion: Richmond’s ‘Downton’

By Martha Steger

We don’t need to leave our Richmond homes for a taste of England this summer (or anytime for that matter).

United Kingdom-related sites such as Henricus Historical Park in Chesterfield County, and Agecroft Hall and Virginia House in Richmond’s Windsor Farms are accessible for visiting. And various area brewpubs offer English-style ales for swishing down refreshment after sampling the sites.

But there’s nothing quite like Richmond’s 33-room Maymont Mansion. Visitors to the site often say, “This looks just like ‘Downton Abbey,’” according to Dale Wheary — Maymont’s curator and director of historical collections and programs for more than 35 years.

“Downton Abbey,” of course, is the most-watched television series in PBS history. It brings to life the fictional aristocratic Crawley family, set in early 20th century Britain.

Fans of the television show have since immersed themselves in Virginia’s own Gilded Age — the era of Carnegie, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt — especially during special tours of the Dooley family’s Maymont Mansion.

The Dooleys had it all — wealth, a beautiful castle-like home, lavish receptions, and a domestic staff in the house and on the grounds to maintain their lifestyle during the Gilded Age of the late 1880s through 1910.

In special tours of their mansion, offered occasionally during the year, elegantly costumed ladies and gentlemen, and members of the household staff, acquaint visitors with the social rituals, fashions, family dramas and important tittle-tattle of the day in Richmond and beyond. (Regular tours are offered six days a week. See box on page 20 for details.)

England’s Highclere Castle

Across the Atlantic, no tours with costumed figures hold court at the real Downton Abbey — that is, Highclere Castle, about 90 minutes west of London, where much of the TV series was filmed. But that hasn’t stopped tourists from more than 300 countries from visiting Highclere, Present Highclere owners — the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon and his wife, Countess Fiona Aitken Carnarvon — refer to “Downton” as “the television persona” of their home. They want visitors to understand this isn’t just the fictional English countryside setting for one of the world’s most widely viewed television dramas. It’s their real home (if somewhat grandiose at 30,000 square feet and 300 rooms).

On my visit to Highclere, whether I was thinking fact or fiction, I couldn’t help but notice my fellow tourists were speechless for a couple of seconds after their motor coaches drove past horses grazing on pastureland along the packed-earth driveway, stopping in front of the stately castle.

There’s a reason Highclere’s exterior gothic elements, which date from 1842, bear a similarity to the grand Houses of Parliament at Westminster: Sir Charles Barry designed both structures.

Stepping inside the privately owned home — which is the centerpiece of a 5,000-acre farm on the lush border of Hampshire and Berkshire — I was struck by how un-castle-like the interior is. Inside, Highclere looks like a straightforward Victorian manor house, almost “homey” and easy to navigate (when there isn’t a long line of tourists, that is).

A hundred years ago the castle was the seat of the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon. He famously discovered the Tomb of the Egyptian “Boy Pharaoh,” Tutankhamun, in 1922 with his archaeological colleague, Howard Carter. The Eighth Earl and Countess have opened an Egyptian exhibition in the cellars to tell that story.

Up- and down-stairs at Maymont

Back in Richmond, Maymont Mansion, built in 1893, today conveys the history of the second generation of the Dooley family to live in the home — James and Sallie May (hence “Maymont”) — while explaining how the couple benefitted from the education and economic success of the first generation of Dooleys.

Unlike many Irish immigrants of the day, James Dooley’s parents brought capital and sophistication with them to the U.S. — to Richmond — but lost their large hat-manufacturing operations in the final days of the Civil War.

Thanks to its stately design and its history, Maymont has had visitors “from all over the world and every continent except Antarctica,” according to history program manager Nancy Lowden.

Romanesque in its exterior style, Maymont reflects the prosperity of James Dooley, a leading Richmond attorney and philanthropist, who devoted half a century to developing railroad networks across the United States. He was also prominent in the New South’s industrialization after the Civil War.

Maymont’s “Belowstairs” exhibit in the mansion’s basement tells stories of the lives of the eight to 10 men and women who worked at any given time inside the Dooleys’ home. An annual February program, “View from the Backstairs,” focuses on the staff, most of whom were African American.

Maymont’s English basement design — with windows allowing for light and air circulation — made conditions more comfortable for kitchen chores. A very modern Otis elevator took wine and other supplies upstairs for dinner service. (The wine cellar, with racks to store more than 600 bottles of wine, is the only room downstairs with a lock.)

Visitors can clearly see what was involved behind the scenes in maintaining the lifestyle of the wealthy couple upstairs. The Dooleys entertained with teas, parties and formal dinners.

“We know of receptions in 1898 and 1906 for hundreds of guests, and a luncheon in 1912 for governors and their wives who were in Richmond,” Lowden said.

The kitchen on view in the basement looks as if the staff were in the middle of their work when they unexpectedly had to leave the room. Mrs. Walker, the last cook in the house, might have been creating something special for the Dooleys as well as food for staff.

There’s a table where the butler might sit to eat his dinner as he related an amusing story to Mrs. Walker. Nearby sits a baby doll, Gloria, which belonged to Mrs. Walker’s granddaughter, who would visit.

Comparing bedrooms

When I visited Highclere, our guide Lizzy Howard emphasized that little was changed or rearranged in the castle for filming “Downton Abbey.”

To satisfy the curiosity of tourists, bedrooms are conveniently labeled by characters in the series: the one at the top of the stairs is the one used as Lady Cora’s bedroom; the Portico Bedroom, Lady Sybil’s room; the Arundel Room, Lady Edith’s bedroom.

The various bedrooms bring back favorite scenes among TV viewers, but the juxtaposition of personal items belonging to the resident earl and countess — such as a bedside copy of the novel A Man in Full by Richmond’s own Tom Wolfe — was a reminder that Highclere is a lived-in home, not a set designed for television.

Regarding the separate bedrooms occupied by the Dooleys at Maymont, Lowden recalled a scene in an early “Downton” episode in which Lady Mary chastised her parents for sharing a bedroom. “She tells them ‘all of the really smart couples have separate rooms!’” Lowden said.  And so it was at Maymont.

Mrs. Dooley’s bedroom has several unique and memorable items — a suite of furniture comprising a bed, dresser, dressing table and chairs, all with carved swans; a Tiffany & Co. dresser and chair made of silver and tusks of narwhal; and an impressive Louis Vuitton traveling trunk.

An Egyptian-style dressing table graces Major Dooley’s dressing room. And situated between their bedrooms is a very modern bathroom.

Almost everything on Maymont’s first and second floors belonged to the Dooleys and was used at Maymont or at their summer home, Swannanoa, on Virginia’s Afton Mountain. First-floor rooms at Maymont, as at Highclere, are formal and designed to impress — which they do!

 A tale of two libraries

Both houses have libraries with a masculine feel and eclectic artwork. Maymont’s staff has inventoried 1,200 books belonging to the Dooleys — lots of European history, English authors including Shakespeare and Dickens — but also books of Richmond’s native son, Edgar Allan Poe. There’s also a bronze medallion of Poe above the mantelpiece in the library.

The library at Maymont was not just for show. Mrs. Dooley wrote poetry, as well as a “moonlight-and-magnolia” book “typical of southerners before the [Civil] War,” Lowden said. “Major Dooley received at least a half-dozen sterling silver academic medals while he was at Georgetown University in the 1860s.”

The scale of Highclere’s traditional library is much greater, of course. It utilizes the Dewey Decimal System to organize its 5,000-plus books.

The countess and present mistress of Highclere, like Sally May Dooley, is also an author in her own right. In 2011, she published Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.

She told me that “the library is one that began with my husband’s direct ancestor in 1679.” She said the two-room library is her and her husband’s favorite part of the house.

She recalled the library game she used to play with her son and nephew: “I used to ask them to give me a number and then a shelf, and that was the book they had to find and tell me about.”

As I moved along in my tour, Highclere’s house guide, Howard, answered my question regarding the small desk whose provenance indicates it was used by Napoleon. There is a slit in its top for mail to be slipped through for franking (castles posted their own mail). “I visited here as a child,” Howard said, “and always remember this desk in the library.”

One of several framed black and white photographs on a library table showed the present earl standing directly behind Queen Elizabeth II, his godmother.

Although Sallie May Dooley traced her English lineage to Jamestown’s first settlers, few images exist of the May or Dooley families. “We have newspaper accounts of visits by governors and generals and diplomats attending social functions at Maymont — but no photos,” Lowden said.

Lovely landscapes

At both homes, immaculately manicured lawns are visible from almost every window.

The Carnarvons and Highclere celebrated last year’s tercentennial of the birth of Capability Brown, the renowned 18th-century designer of landscapes on a grand scale.

Brown’s passion for the beauty of landscape is evident in the gardens and 1,000-acre park at Highclere. The brochure language aptly describes “gently rolling lawns, precisely planted cedars, and stands of deciduous trees that lead the eye to grand perspectives.”

Maymont’s visitors can see that the Dooleys — no doubt influenced by estates in the English countryside — wanted to produce a romantic, park-like setting for their estate as well. Details such as the wraparound porch, the mansion’s towers, and the stables and other outbuildings provide a grandiose escape for residents and visitors.

Sallie Dooley, very interested in horticulture, took on the grounds as her special project.

One of the original designs is a man-made waterfall, with water originating from the Kanawha Canal. The Dooleys actually purchased a section of the canal to secure the water rights. Much of today’s garden reflects the original design, though it was renovated and expanded in 1978 to feel more like a “garden stroll.”

The “Downton” effect

At Maymont there’s no confusing fiction and reality, which often happens at Highclere as well as in the small, ancient market town of Bampton, where village scenes in “Downton Abbey” were filmed.

When the series was concluding, Bampton guide Robin Shuckburgh, said, “We’re being told to expect 15 years of the Downton effect.”

Bampton, a village in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, looked forward to using its newfound tourism dollars to help repair its church and archive building. St. Mary’s Church — renamed St. Michael and All Angels, as pictured in the series — hosted a number of dramatic “Downton” events, including weddings, funerals, christenings and even a jilting at the altar.

There will likely be renewed interest when a “Downton” movie, announced in early July, comes out in 2018.

Shuckburgh was asked daily where the grave of Matthew Crawley, a character in the show, is. “I had to tell visitors the production people bring the headstone back each time they’re filming here. But when the series finished filming, I talked the company into giving it to us so we could use it for tourism purposes.

Churchgate House, the Bampton rectory, features prominently in the series as Isobel Crawley’s house. The old grammar-school building, which now houses the Bampton Community Archive/gift shop, served as the ‘Downton’ hospital. Many items in the gift shop are locally made, with all profits going toward village repairs and restoration.

Other grand English manors are hoping to capitalize on the “Downton effect. The Duchess of Rutland, mistress of Belvoir Castle (which Brits pronounce as “beaver” Castle), has produced her own coffee-table book to promote tours.

Caroline Stewart, secretary of the hunt at Belvoir, said that when Lady Carnarvon visited Belvoir last summer, she mentioned “Downton Abbey” “had taken off in China, too” — suggesting that the Downton effect could go on for a long time.

At Maymont, Lowden hopes the Downton effect keeps rippling across the Atlantic for a long time, too.

Midlothian writer Martha Steger traveled independently to the Nottingham area of the U.K. to see other British estates before traveling to London to join a group tour organized by Sterling Silver Tours for Community Idea Stations’ TV 23.