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City Dogs

Chimborazo's new park within a park is something to howl about.

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A startling break in the city's traditional street grid is evident as you pass Chimborazo Park headed east on Broad Street. Just before Broad comes to a dead end near 36th, the thoroughfare makes an unexpected curve to the right, wiggles its way downhill and becomes Government Road as it passes through Fulton Bottom.

Although I've driven this route scores of times, usually en route to the airport, I recently noticed something new: a park within a park on a terraced space just below the ridge of Chimborazo Hill. An inviting asphalt roadway and new signs welcome any takers to the Church Hill Dog Park.

A little more than a year ago the city's Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities and a community group, the Friends of the Church Hill Dog Park, teamed up to transform this virtual no-man's land of park space into a destination for dogs and puppies and those who love them.

This second official city dog park (the other is in Byrd Park behind Dogwood Dell) goes a long way toward updating and adding another programming element to the handsome but somewhat frumpy Chimborazo Park. The park has been a jewel in the crown of parks that sit upon a number of prominent in-town hilltops since they were established in the 1870s. But mostly Chimborazo is a passive greensward except for the Richmond National Battlefield Park visitor center that occupies a former U.S. weather station.

With the new dog park occupying two broad terraces situated just below the eastern crest of Chimborazo Hill — on a sloping space that few people probably knew was even there — the 40-acre Chimborazo Park is an even more interesting space aesthetically when experienced as a multileveled environment, not a single, flat expanse.

Upon arriving at the dog park the first thing you notice are the breathtaking vistas looking out in eastern and southeastern directions from the relatively high spot. The view is more reminiscent of what you might find in a Piedmont burg such as Charlottesville or Warrenton than in Richmond. Unlike more familiar views of Richmond's downtown skyline with its buildings and highways, the vista from Chimborazo offers mostly trees, both Fulton and Powhatan hills in the distance and the bluish horizon farther away. Closer in, through the current autumn hues, you can glimpse a grouping of traditionally styled houses in Fulton Bottom (which look like Monopoly game houses) and the former Richmond Cedar Works building, now part of Rocketts Landing.

The road into the park is paved in asphalt. Large blocks of granite define the parking spaces loosely and buffer the abrupt, downhill slope. Now closed to vehicular traffic is an extended, broad cobblestone carriageway that, from this point, either ascends to Chimborazo Hill or makes its way downward to the bottom of the partially wooded slope. This old cobblestone road is a reminder that this hillside, like those of Libby Hill, Jefferson Hill and Gambles Hill parks to the west, were invested with a heavy dose of civic infrastructure to serve the masses in densely populated Richmond from the 1870s to 1890s, before it was clear that the electric street car (introduced in 1888) — and then the automobile — would disperse the population to the suburbs.

Another elegant holdover is a grand granite staircase and fountain (with 1895 carved into it) that leads up Chimborazo Hill to an octagonal, Roman Doric-styled park house. From a 21st-century perspective, these old elements are part of our city's rich, underappreciated architectural heritage.

To reach the dog park itself requires a descent of 20 steps. On this lower terrace the city's in-house designers have placed separate enclosures for large and small dogs. Natural, open wooden slats secure the fenced areas.

There are also two square-shaped pavilions that provide refuge for humans while they watch the dogs romp. On two recent visits I found each of these enclosures occupied by 10 or so folks chattering away. Back up the steps, a number of dogless couples were enjoying the scene and the sweeping views beyond.

Apparently urban dog parks have joined the neighborhood coffee house and community farmers' markets as must-have, high-touch amenities in an increasingly high-tech world. But who knew that on the far side of Chimborazo Park the creation of a new dog run also would reveal a forgotten side of something old — a glorious 19th-century pleasure park? 

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