Special/Signature Issues » Home Style

Beyond Ordinary

Maymont. Hollywood Cemetery. The Dome Home. Great places to visit.



... Enjoy a sepulchral view?

You couldn't ask for better neighbors.

They're quiet, that's for sure. They never throw big parties. And though they number in the thousands, they keep pretty much to themselves. Except for that night Lian Bily saw the dark figure pointing at her from the drive.

Bily, a Virginia Commonwealth University senior, lives in Hollywood Cemetery. She, along with her brother Devin and her boyfriend, Josh Paulie, share the second floor of the ornate Victorian-style caretaker's house.

"Oh, we'll take it," Bily said as soon as she saw the glowing windows, the fireplaces, the view of the hollies and the lush lawns.

The imposing house was built in 1894 from a $3,000 mail-order kit, says renovator and real estate developer Clark Glavé: "It showed up in a boxcar."

To save money, the cemetery used its gravediggers to assemble the kit. Not surprisingly, the house ended up in "really rough shape" after a century of use, Glavé says. When the house faced demolition in 1992, Glavé offered to renovate the building after signing a 30-year lease with the cemetery. With help from the Historic Richmond Foundation, he turned the building into four apartments.

Glavé's favorite is the third-floor apartment, which in a turret has a tiny round "Jetsons kitchen," as he puts it, and views of the river in wintertime.

Bily's apartment boasts high ceilings, airy, spacious rooms and a gleaming black fireplace in the living room. The upper panes of the windows feature glass colored in warm lollipop hues: red, orange, pink and yellow. Lian's ghostly cat, Ferret, a blue-eyed white creature with a charcoal smudge on her forehead, prowls the slate roof.

A small covered balcony provides a pleasant spot to look out over the elaborate rooftop ironwork to watch visiting tourists. The visitors also watch them, of course.

Older tourists often snap photos of the residents sitting on their porch, Devin Bily says, as if they're part of the scenery. "They'll point at you," he says, demonstrating, "so I just point back."

At night come other, illicit visitors. Young Oregon Hill residents or VCU students sometimes sneak into the cemetery after it's closed, Lian Bily says — but the security guard does a good job of running them off. Last Halloween Bily discovered a group of people trying to scale the tall iron gate to get in. She says she scolded them: "What are you guys doing?" The intruders slunk off. Not only were they breaking the law, she says, but they were obtuse — they could have easily walked through the little wrought iron gate that leads to the house and the cemetery grounds.

The Bilys, lifelong Richmonders, grew up in Ginter Park. Lian Bily recalls that the neighborhood, now respectable, used to be a little rough. "It's probably why I'm afraid of ghosts," she admits cheerily. "I had to have something scarier than guns."

Yet Glavé believes the spirits residing in the house are benevolent. As he worked late nights during the renovation, he says, he found to his surprise that every time he picked up a scrap of wooden trim, it would fit perfectly in place.

While workers were grading the back yard for a walkway, he says, they unearthed a granite tombstone and fled in fright. But no body lay beneath. As it turned out, the stone had been delivered 30 years earlier and the caretaker simply forgot to put it in place. So the stone was reunited with its owner, a Korean War veteran who had lain unmarked for all those years.

Weirder still, Glavé says, was what happened with the staircase newel posts. All were missing when he began the renovations, he says, but he wanted the replacements to look like the originals. He searched the house for even a fragment of a post, he says, and found nothing. One day he concluded there was nothing to be done and decided to order generic posts instead. But first Glavé peered under the staircase for the 10th time, and there it was — half of an original newel post.

"The spirits want this place back together," he concludes.

During daylight, Bily says, Hollywood is a lovely, inviting place, "sort of like a little Central Park." On warm days she likes to take a blanket and a book to a perch by the river.

When the sun goes down, it's a different matter. "It's creepy at night, but I'm slowly getting over it," she says.

"What's creepy about it?" her brother demands.

Coming home and having to "look out into that scary, black darkness," she replies. Like the night she arrived home and the beams from her headlights revealed a figure walking up the drive from the cemetery. She thought it was a neighbor, she says. Once she got to her porch, she heard a little clink, like dropped keys, and turned. The figure was pointing at her.

Bily fled to the house of a friend, who told her she was being silly. But Bily remains convinced the figure was a supernatural visitor. Still, it doesn't really bother her, she says. Like Glavé, she believes that somehow the caretaker's house feels like it's taking care of its inhabitants.

Beside, she reasons, "If there were ghosts, why would they want to mess with us?"

... Be master of your dome-ain?

The Bryan Park dome is ready to launch.

The little house on Hill Drive is as tightly organized as a sailing ship, from the kitchen with its two-burner stove to the half-sized second bathtub. You feel that at a moment's notice, you could batten down the 10 automatic skylights and blast off to Mars without rattling a dish.

Visitors sense this otherworldly quality. "Is it all right to come in?" one woman asks timidly, though the sign outside clearly reads "Open House."

With longtime owners Gailyn and Lavada Parks preparing to move to Texas, the dome home is up for grabs. It's listed for $180,000. "Everybody that's seen it is just enthralled by it, you know," Realtor Jody Korman says.

The geodesic dome was invented by famed engineer and scientist Buckminster Fuller, who wanted to create a structure that would be more energy-efficient and economical than typical dwellings. The spherical design exposes less surface area than a box-shaped house and promotes better air circulation, thus making the dome cheaper to heat and cool.

Once considered the province of ecosensitive iconoclasts, geodesic domes are something one might expect to see nestled in a woodsy commune or rising from the Arizona desert, not plopped down in an otherwise ordinary Henrico County suburb.

The Bryan Park dome was built in 1989 from a Timberline Geodesics kit, Korman says. One of the owners suffers from severe allergies, and Korman says the dome's massive air filtration units make the house virtually allergen-free.

Though only 1,100 square feet, the five-armed dome house has a 26-foot ceiling. To calculate its interior dimensions, Korman says, "you had to use calculus."

Big windows made up of triangular-shaped wedges — reminiscent of Trivial Pursuit pieces — and lots of conventional windows let the sunlight in. The house sits on a 0.22-acre lot with a workshop, a shed and a cactus garden.

"It's just a very bright house," Korman says. "I consider this a very happy house."

It also feels somewhat antiseptic. The floor is speckled terrazzo; the counters stainless steel; the walls spotless white.

Visitors are intrigued by "the style," she says, "the uniqueness. The fact that they've never seen anything like it before." Yet the dome home's single bedroom and the potential cost of installing a second floor (at least $2,500 for the supports, plus work and materials) have given some people pause.

As of mid-June, Korman had shown the home to many potential buyers but found no takers. She's confident that soon someone will want to call the dome home.

... Have Maymont all to yourself?

Many a Richmond schoolchild has daydreamed about being locked inside Maymont for the night. You could gallop through the gardens and splash in the fountains. You could chase the peacocks to your heart's content.

John Nicholson could do all these things. But his job is to suppress havoc in the Dooley family's old estate, not run amok himself.

Nicholson, 26, manager of public safety at Maymont since 2002, resides in the little house just inside the park gates at Hampton Street. When the park's gates are closed, he says: "I am king. It is all mine."

Housemate Bryan Wright has been a friend of Nicholson's since they were both Eagle Scouts in Troop 409. He moved in about two years ago and likes to tell people: "I was looking for about 100 acres — but in the city."

Nicholson, who calls himself "a Richmond boy through and through," says he always wanted to work outdoors. His uncle was a horticulturist at Maymont years ago, he says, and applying for the security job six years ago felt like a natural thing to do.

"I never imagined I'd be living in Maymont," he says. He and Wright live rent-free in the little cedar-shingled house, which the Dooleys built in the late 1800s to house the estate's caretaker.

Nicholson painted the interior walls in deep reds and bright yellows, while Wright helped furnish it with family heirlooms — a carved mirror, a punched-tin pie cabinet, Oriental rugs. Equestrian prints and vintage sports memorabilia lend the home a classic Virginia-bachelor look.

The back yard is something of a "dust bowl," Nicholson says. He doesn't have much of a green thumb, he says. But why would he need to, with some of the city's loveliest gardens a step away?

"The porch, I guess, is the best part," Nicholson says. You can often see the two sitting there as the sun sets, watching the last visitors depart in the evening.

Nicholson is on call 24 hours a day, which he calls "a very minor inconvenience." If alarms go off anywhere on the property, he's there. But Nicholson says he's seen little trouble in his time there. The only time people sneak in after hours, he says, is when it snows and they're tempted by Maymont's sled-ready rolling hills.

In Nicholson's four years living there, he says, only once did someone approach the door while he was home. "People, for the most part, realize that it's a private home and stay away," he says.

Living in a city landmark comes with its own limitations, Nicholson says. "I can't be walking around the house in just my boxers … or playing the music too loud during the day," he says. You never know who might be peering in the windows, he says, "'cause I'm sitting in the fishbowl."

But both men agree that the Maymont home will be difficult to leave. "I open that gate and I come through and I'm like, 'Don't take this for granted,'" Wright says. Someday he may live in houses much grander, but even then, he says, he will look back and know, "This was the best place I ever lived." HS

Add a comment