An anonymous donor has made a proposal that could be a solution to the conundrum the Fredericksburg City Council is facing over what to do with the historic Mary Washington Monument caretaker’s cottage.
Fredericksburg attorney Bob Ackerman told council members Tuesday that the Fredericksburg woman had authorized him to say she feels deeply that the 4-acre property that includes both the cottage and the monument should be preserved together. She is willing to pay a “substantial sum” into a special designated fund or foundation that she would establish for the cottage’s maintenance, upkeep and any improvements that might result from the development of a master plan.
The city’s Memorials Advisory Commission had recommended city officials consider selling the distinctive Victorian-era dwelling on Washington Avenue with restrictions that would preserve its historic integrity and its grounds. The cottage or lodge, as it’s also known, has been little used for some time, and the city has spent approximately $66,000 maintaining, outfitting and repairing it in the past few years.
Ackerman said the benefactor has offered to lease the cottage for an extended period. She would assume full responsibility for its maintenance and upkeep, and would manage any sublease to a suitable tenant.
Her condition is that the city conveys an easement to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources or similar body so the property could not be subdivided or used for any purpose other than what is outlined in the deed that transferred ownership from two feuding memorials associations to the city as settlement of a lawsuit.
“My client believes that such an arrangement would carry out the intent of the gift to the city while relieving the city of the burden of being a landlord and having to lease and maintain an historic building,” Ackerman said. “This arrangement could also be used to fund future improvements at the site, including historic interpretation, landscaping and tourism amenities.”
He assured City Council that the benefactor has the means to carry out her offer, and is prepared to fund it as soon as legal documents can be prepared and approved.
“We understand that a lot needs to be worked out,” Ackerman said. “My client has no personal financial interest in this proposal, and would simply enjoy the satisfaction of seeing Fredericksburg celebrate more fully the contributions of women to the development of this country.
“There is an old axiom that you can’t un-ring a bell. My client hopes that this council will not ring the bell and authorize the sale of this property until it has fully considered exploring this proposal.”
Ackerman was the last of eight speakers during a public hearing on the land-use amendments and rezoning needed to put the cottage on the market for a possible sale or lease.
City Council took no action on any of the measures so it would have time to consider the new offer, which did not include specifics.
“We certainly are most appreciative of such a generous offer, and as the city manager and I told Mr. Ackerman and [Planning Commissioner James Pates] when we met with them, we would love to entertain such an offer,” said Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw. “We look forward to working through the details of such an offer. I want that to be clearly understood. No one is looking askance at such a generous idea.”
The Mary Washington Monument has the distinction of being the first monument to a woman in the United States that was paid for and erected by women. It honors the mother of George Washington, who lived the last years of her life a few blocks away from the monument site.
She visited what’s known as Meditation Rock many times to meditate and pray for the safety of her son during the American Revolution, and asked that she be buried at the site.
At its Oct. 9 meeting, the Planning Commission questioned city staff’s recommendations to approve the amendments needed for the property to be leased or sold. It decided they weren’t in agreement with the city’s comprehensive plan and voted 6–0 to deny all changes.
Several commission members pointed out that the Mary Washington Monument Park property was deeded to the city with the understanding that all 4 acres would be kept intact as a memorial to George Washington’s mother. They said dividing the lodge from it would be violating their trust, a sentiment echoed by former City Manager Pete Kolakowski and HFFI President David James during the commission’s public hearing on the issue.
David Durham, the Planning Commission secretary, represented the commission during City Council’s public hearing. He said commission members were concerned about the steps City Council was considering solely because it could mean the cottage would be sold as a private residence. He said that while city staff have characterized it as primarily a residence and it was used as that, it was more than that.
“The site has significance far greater than Mary Washington herself,” he added. “It’s also a testament to the great awakening of women in this country during the 1890s when women initiated [and] led movements for historic preservation and interpretation, suffrage, temperance, and paved the way for the assertion of women’s rights throughout the 20th century and indeed continuing to today.”
Council member Jason Graham said he’d still like to go through a bidding process for the cottage so that they can compare the anonymous donor’s proposal with others that might step forward. He said it would keep matters clear and transparent.
Council member Matt Kelly said that if the donor’s offer had come before City Council earlier, they’d all be opening champagne bottles and celebrating. He said there has been a lot of interest in the property since the city began discussing the possibility of putting it up for sale or lease, and council members should take the time to make the best decision. Council member Tim Duffy agreed, saying the donor’s offer is worth pursuing.
“It’s wonderful to live in a town where people are passionate about its history,” he said.