History and Gardens of Emancipation Park

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Lee Park: prior to the installation of the Robert E. Lee monument in 1924.
Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park): prior to the installation of the Robert E. Lee monument in 1924.
(Photo by Rufus Holsinger)
Holsinger Studio Collection (#9862), Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library

On May 28, 1917, Paul McIntire purchased a city block that encompassed 45,435 square feet bound by Jefferson and Market Streets and by First and Second Streets, NE.  On the lot stood the 1829 Southall-Venable home which was owned by the Charles S. Venable family.  The house was a two story brick dwelling surrounded by several smaller outbuildings and beautiful gardens containing fir, oak, and weeping willow trees.  During the following year, McIntire had the dwelling demolished and created a formal landscaped square, now known as Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park).  McIntire gave the site to the City of Charlottesville in order "to erect thereon a statue of General Robert E. Lee and to present said property to the City as a memorial to his parents..."  This park was the first of four parks he eventually gave to the City of Charlottesville.  Today, wide concrete walkways lead into the park at each corner and along Second Street.  They converge on a central plaza where boxwood, Japanese holly, and annual plantings surround the heroic-sized bronze figures of Lee and his horse, Traveller, atop an oval-shaped granite pedestal.

Southall-Venable House, January 22, 1918
Southall-Venable House, January 22, 1918
Holsinger Studio Collection (#9862), Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library

For Paul McIntire, the sculpture of Lee proved most troublesome.  Seven years would elapse before the bronze portraits of Lee and Traveller were finally erected in Charlottesville.  Henry Shrady was commissioned to execute the sculpture in 1917.  At the time, Shrady was nearing completion of the Grant Memorial, an enormous project on which he had been working for nineteen years.  For over a year Shrady's primary focus continued to be on the Grant memorial.  Finally, on June 10, 1918, the sculptor informed McIntire that he had completed the Grant Memorial and was ready to "Carry on the sketch of the Lee to completion."

Chronically ill, Shrady worked very slowly.  After two years, Shrady had yet to complete the 1/3 size model of the Lee sculpture.  He wrote to McIntire that "I have every hope of finishing it this summer and begin[ning] the larger one in the fall... I believe the pedestal is almost finished, and will soon be ready to be put in place."  On October 14, 1920, Lloyd Brothers Memorials of Washington, DC reported that the pedestal would be assembled and ready for inspection by "next Tuesday."

Upon viewing the miniature sculpture, concern mounted over the likeness of both Lee's face and the likeness of Traveller.  Though the unsatisfactory likeness of Lee and Traveller suggest that Shrady's health was failing, it must have come as a shock to McIntire when on April 13, 1922, the Associated Press announced the death of noted sculptor Henry Merwin Shrady.

On his deathbed, Shrady is reported to have instructed the doctors and nurses who attended him to "keep the canvas wet -- keep the canvas wet", speaking about the cover over the clay model of Lee and Traveller and how it must be kept moist until a plaster cast could be taken from it.  The hospital staff are said to have ignored the request, thinking the dying man was delirious.  Whether this report is true or not, the canvas around the model had dried and adhered to the clay.  When Leo Lentelli was commissioned to complete the sculpture, he found Shrady's model almost ruined.

Before completing the model, Lentelli visited museums in Richmond and Washington to measure Traveller's skeleton and Lee's garments and equipment.  He found Shrady's model of the horse to be exactly one and two-thirds life size.  His figure of Lee, estimated from the size of General Lee's coat, hat and gloves, was equally accurate.

In January 1924, nearly seven years after the work had been originally commissioned, the statue was finally cast in bronze at the Roman Bronze Works in Brooklyn, New York.  The piece was signed CONCEIVED BY SHRADY - EXECUTED BY LEO LENTELLI SC. 1924.  After being delayed en route, the work arrived in Charlottesville in late April and was placed in the park on Saturday, May 3rd.  Lentelli, however, did not give Lee and Traveller the vitality Shrady had envisioned, for Shrady's small model of the sculpture, now at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library in Charlottesville, shows animation, while Lentelli's larger figures are quieter but more dignified and powerful.

Paul McIntire instructed that the local chapters of the Confederate Veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy should have entire charge of planning the exercise for the unveiling of the sculpture in Charlottesville.  It was thus presented to the city on May 21, 1924, during a Confederate reunion.  As a part of the ceremony, one hundred cadets from the Virginia Military Institute paraded through the center of Charlottesville decorated with Confederate colors.

The sculpture was presented to the City on behalf of Paul McIntire by Dr. Henry Louis Smith, President of Washington and Lee University.  Three-year-old Mary Walker Lee, a great-grand-daughter of General Lee, then pulled the Confederate flag draped over the sculpture away, and the crowd cheered loudly before President Edwin A.  Alderman of the University of Virginia made a speech of acceptance for the City of Charlottesville.  The afternoon's festivities concluded with a benediction, after which the crowd dispersed to celebrate at a number of parties and balls.

Twenty-seven years later, in 1951, the Albemarle Garden Club suggested to the City Council that iron picket fences be erected around the sculptures of Lee and Jackson in their respective parks, and that a subterranean parking lot be constructed beneath Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park).  The Garden Club's suggestions were never implemented, though during the 1950's a few changes did occur.  In addition to the boxwoods planted around the base of the statue, paths radiating from First Street toward the central court were constructed.  The paths are not as wide as those radiating from Second Street, nor are they symmetrical since one is designed to accommodate a large weeping willow tree (which can be seen in the top photograph).

In the 1970's a 100-year-old white ash tree fell in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park).  Shortly thereafter, the Lee-Jackson Foundation planted a new tree that was dubbed the "Lee Oak".  The boxwoods planted around the statue were replaced by a low growing shrub to discourage "the city's derelicts" from loitering behind the tall bushes.  Other trees of interest planted in recent times include a weeping beech, a Japanese maple and several dogwoods.  Currently, Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park) and Justice Park (formerly known as Jackson Park) are maintained in part by citizens who participate in the City's Volunteers in the Gardens program.

Statue of Robert E. Lee and Traveller
Statue of Robert E. Lee and Traveller

The City of Charlottesville wishes to thank and acknowledge: