Charles F. Gillette, Renowned Landscape Architect

PETERSBURG — Philanthropist Bill Nicholson, who resides in an art-filled High Street townhouse in the historic Old Town, is back. The man with an inexplicable fascination with Petersburg draws attention to his neighborhood in a wonderful way.

The Library of Virginia, the Petersburg Garden Club, and the Petersburg Public Library will present a free public exhibit sponsored by Nicholson. “Matters of Scale: Charles F. Gillette in Petersburg”, organized by the Library of Virginia, will celebrate the work of the famous landscape architect.

Nicholson has a special request. He wants his fellow St. Petersburgers to clean up their gardens and clean up the streets to prepare for the thousands of people to descend on Petersburg.

“It’s a wonderful achievement and an opportunity for all of us to show off the beautiful aspects of our city,” said Nicholson.

Virginia Avenue entrance to Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg.  This plan is included in the Charles F. Gillette Papers at the Library of Virginia.

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The exhibition at Saint Petersburg Public Library will be part of the Petersburg Garden Club tour on Tuesday, April 26 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the day before it opens to the public.

“From the 1920s through the 1960s, the name Charles F. Gillette was synonymous with the best landscape design in the Upper South,” said Dale Neighbors, Visual Studies Collection Coordinator at the Library of Virginia. “Seeing his original plans and drawings provides a rare opportunity to appreciate the influence of regionalism on landscaping and to recognize Charles Gillette’s legacy to contemporary Virginia gardens.”

Although he is best known for his work in private domains, Gillette’s designs in Petersburg serve as a microcosm of his broader career, encompassing large-scale residential, corporate and educational projects.

Projects such as Virginia State University [1930s – 1950s]Blandford Cemetery [1928]and the private gardens of Petersburg residents George Cameron, CL Morris, and WR Seward incorporate many of what would later become recognized as Gillette’s signature details, including highly crafted masonry construction, carefully selected garden statuary, and a overall concern for proportion and scale.

Inspired largely by Charles F. Gillette papers from the Library of Virginia, the exhibit includes garden drawings, photographs, and client correspondence that have never been publicly displayed before, as well as a Gillette bench recently restored.

A garden bench designed and made by the famous landscape architect Charles F. Gillette [1886–1969].  Bill Nicholson acquired it for his historic Thomas Day House in Petersburg.

Bill Nicholson’s Discovery

The exhibit 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 exhibit.

Nicholson learned that his big find was originally one of a pair of benches created with gardens designed by Gillette for Edward Victor Williams’ residence called Kenwyn. [now known as Wynandra] built in 1929 on Ampthill Road in Richmond. He had also recently seen works by Gillette during a visit to the Library of Virginia.

“Given the volume of work Gillette anticipates for our beautiful city, I am honored and privileged to sponsor the first-ever public exhibition of Gillette’s works to benefit the Petersburg Garden Club,” said Nicholson.

“Bill has been involved in bringing this exhibit to Petersburg from the beginning,” said Scott Dodson, executive director of the Library of Virginia Foundation. “He is an excellent partner, an instrument for building relationships in the city and a great supporter of arts, culture and history.”

Nicholson’s historic Thomas Day House in Petersburg will house his recently acquired prized bench.

Charles F. Gillette [1886–1969] is nationally recognized as one of the first landscape architects associated with the restoration and recreation of historic gardens in the Upper South and particularly in Virginia.

Gillette established a regional style – known as “Virginia Garden” – characterized by its understated classicism and attention to detail. He linked architecture and landscape in a way rarely found today, not only emphasizing traditional features of landscaping, but also carefully shaping each of his creative outdoor environments to complement the most distinctive elements of its clients’ homes and their wider surroundings.

Limited edition print of the painting "Gillette Petersburg in my head" by Richmond artist Catherine Venable.

“It’s exciting,” said Petersburg Public Library Director of Library Services Wayne M. Crocker. “We are honored to have the opportunity to host this exhibition at the library.”

Visit the exhibit April 27 through June 30 at 201 West Washington Street during regular library hours: Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Limited-edition prints of the painting “Gillette’s Petersburg on my Mind” by Richmond artist Catherine Venable will be on sale April 26 at the Petersburg Public Library from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Venable’s artwork depicts the 2022 Garden Tour in Petersburg. It features properties on the tour, the Petersburg Library, Nicholson’s Gillette Bench as well as garden club members doing flower arrangements.

Visit vagardenweek.org/tours for more information on the Petersburg Garden Tour and tickets. The Garden Club of Virginia’s Historic Garden Week runs from April 23-30.

To learn more about Gillette, visit lva.virginia.gov.

– Kristi K. Higgins, aka The Social Butterfly columnist, is the food news and Q&A reporter at The Progress-Index. Do you have a current tip on local trends or businesses? Contact Kristi (her, her) at [email protected], follow @KHiggins_PI on Twitter, @socialbutterflykristi on Instagram and follow progress-index.com.

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