PETERSBURG — Philanthropist Bill Nicholson who resides in an art-filled High Street row house in historic Old Towne is at it again. The man with an inexplicable fascination with Petersburg is drawing attention to his neighborhood in a marvelous way.
The Library of Virginia, Petersburg Garden Club and Petersburg Public Library will present a free public exhibit sponsored by Nicholson. “Matters of Scale: Charles F. Gillette in Petersburg,” curated by the Library of Virginia, will celebrate the work of the renowned landscape architect.
Nicholson has a special request. He wants fellow Petersburgers to gussy up their gardens and clean up the streets to prepare for thousands of people to ascend on Petersburg.
“This is a wonderful achievement and opportunity for us all to show the beautiful aspects of our city,” Nicholson said.
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The exhibition at the Petersburg Public Library will be part of the Petersburg Garden Club’s tour on Tuesday, April 26 from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., the day before it opens to the public.
“From the 1920s through the 1960s, Charles F. Gillette’s name was synonymous with the best landscape design in the upper South,” said Dale Neighbors, the Library of Virginia’s Visual Studies Collection coordinator. “Seeing his original plans and drawings offers a rare opportunity to appreciate the influence of regionalism on landscape design, and to acknowledge the legacy of Charles Gillette on contemporary Virginia gardens.”
Although he is most remembered for his private estate work, Gillette’s Petersburg designs serve as a microcosm of his broader career, encompassing residential, corporate, and large-scale educational projects.
Projects such as Virginia State University [1930s – 1950s], Blandford Cemetery , and the private gardens of Petersburg residents George Cameron, C. L. Morris and W. R. Seward incorporate many of what would later become recognized as Gillette’s signature details, including highly crafted masonry construction, carefully selected garden statuary and an overall concern for proportion and scale.
Drawn extensively from the Charles F. Gillette Papers at the Library of Virginia, the exhibition includes garden designs, photographs, and client correspondence that have never been publicly displayed before, as well as a recently restored Gillette bench.
Bill Nicholson’s discovery
The exhibition was partly inspired by Nicholson’s acquisition of an 82-year-old garden bench attributed to Gillette—an item that will be included in the exhibition.
Nicholson learned that his great find was originally one of a pair of benches created along with gardens designed by Gillette for Edward Victor Williams’s residence called Kenwyn [now known as Wynandra] built in 1929 on Richmond’s Ampthill Road. He had also recently viewed works by Gillette on a visit to the Library of Virginia.
“In light of the volume of work Gillette planned for our fair city, it is my honor and privilege to sponsor the first-ever public exhibit of Gillette’s works to benefit the Petersburg Garden Club,” said Nicholson.
“Bill has been a part of bringing this exhibition to Petersburg from the beginning,” said Scott Dodson, executive director of the Library of Virginia Foundation. “He is a great partner, instrumental to building relationships in the city, and a huge supporter of arts, culture and history.”
Nicholson’s historic Thomas Day House in Petersburg will be home to his newly-acquired, prized bench.
Charles F. Gillette [1886–1969] is nationally recognized as one of the premier landscape architects associated with the restoration and re-creation of historic gardens in the upper South and especially Virginia.
Gillette established a regional style—known as the “Virginia Garden”—characterized by its understated classicism and attention to detail. He linked architecture and landscape in a manner seldom found today, not only emphasizing the traditional features of landscape design but also carefully shaping each of his creative outdoor environments to complement the most distinctive elements of his clients’ homes and broader surroundings.
“This is exciting,” Petersburg Public Library’s Director of Library Services Wayne M. Crocker said. “We are honored to have the opportunity to host this exhibit at the library.”
View the exhibit from April 27 – June 30 at 201 West Washington Street during regular library hours: Monday – Thursday 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Limited-edition prints of the painting “Gillette’s Petersburg on my Mind” by Richmond artist Catherine Venable will be on sale on April 26 at the Petersburg Public Library from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Venable’s work portrays the 2022 Petersburg Garden Tour. It features properties on the tour, the Petersburg Library, Nicholson’s Gillette bench as well as garden club members making flower arrangements.
Visit vagardenweek.org/tours for information about the Petersburg Garden Tour and tickets. The Garden Club of Virginia’s Historic Garden Week runs April 23 – 30.
To learn more about Gillette, visit lva.virginia.gov.
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