Ridge is a 200-year-old estate formerly owned by a number of businessmen
prominent in Virginia history. John Harmer and Walter King acquired
the initial land grant in the colonial period that was later seized
during the American Revolution. William Cabell acquired the property
and left the tract to his son-in-law Robert
Rives, a successful tobacco planter and international merchant,
who built the earliest part of the house circa 1802.
Subsequent 19th century owners of the house included
William Porcher Miles, a former Confederate
congressman from South Carolina.
Wall Street financier and Nelson County native Thomas
Fortune Ryan purchased the estate in 1901 and transformed the small,
Federal-style dwelling into a 50-room Colonial Revival mansion.
Much of Ryan's American Empire furniture remains in the home.
The Holland family acquired
the 4,800 acre estate (with 50 outbuildings) in 1989 for the purpose
Recorded history of the Oak Ridge Estate begins in
the 1730s with the original land grant. The earliest owners were
two Bristol merchants, John Harmer (ca. 1710-1791) and Walter King
(ca. 1714-1792). As British subjects, their property was confiscated
in the American Revolution. Some of their holdings were acquired
by Col. William Cabell (1730-1798).
Robert Rives (1764-1845),
the son-in-law of Col. Cabell, obtained his first tract in 1793.
The original part of the present house was constructed ca. 1802
as a nine room Federal-style dwelling. The residence was elegantly
furnished, but none of these items remain at Oak Ridge.
Rives was a prosperous international merchant who
farmed tobacco and wheat with as many as 200 slaves. Thomas Jefferson
was a visitor to the property in 1817. One of Robert Rives' stores
sold many items to Monticello. Robert Rives was succeeded as owner
by two children: first Margaret Cabell Rives (1792-1862) and then
Alexander Rives (1806-1885), later rector of the University of Virginia.
Oak Ridge suffered no appreciable physical damage
in the Civil War, but was left in adverse economic circumstances.
In 1867 the property was purchased by the rich West Virginia merchant
Oliver Beirne (1811-1888) for the use of his daughter and son-in-law,
William Porcher Miles (1822-1899).
Mr. Miles was a former United States and Confederate congressman
from Charleston, South Carolina. As chairman of the Confederate
House of Representatives Military Affairs Committee, William Porcher
Miles was a key figure in the Southern war effort. He also designed
the renowned Confederate battle flag.
Miles' subsequent residence at Oak Ridge was marked
by agricultural difficulties and family misfortune. William Porcher
Miles left the Estate in 1880 and soon became the wealthiest sugar
planter of Louisiana at Houmas House. Many aspects of Mr. Miles'
life can be extensively documented through a daily diary and thousands
of letters. He will be the subject of a comprehensive biography,
researched and written by the Estate Historian, Lee Marmon.
After a 20 year period of absentee ownership, Oak
Ridge was acquired in 1901 by Thomas Fortune
Ryan (1851 -1928). Mr. Ryan was a Nelson County native who
became spectacularly successful as a Wall Street financier in New
York. Thomas Fortune Ryan became the wealthiest native-born Southerner
of his generation with a net worth of over $130 million. His business
interests embraced the Manhattan transit system, the American Tobacco
Company, banking, the Equitable Life Assurance, the Thompson Sub-Machine
Gun, railroads, Mexican rubber plantations and diamond mines in
the Belgian Congo.
Thomas Fortune Ryan was also prominent as an international
art collector, focusing especially on Renaissance and contemporary
masterpieces. Ryan was an early patron of the French sculptor Rodin.
Wall paintings by the French-Canadian artist M. Suzor-Cote adorn
the Breakfast Room of the Oak Ridge Mansion.
As a generous Catholic philanthropist, Thomas Fortune
Ryan endowed Sacred Heart Cathedral in Richmond, Virginia and St.
Jean de Baptiste in New York City, as well as funding churches,
schools, and hospitals throughout the country. With properties on
Fifth Avenue, at Suffern, New York and in Washington, D. C., Oak
Ridge was nevertheless Thomas Fortune Ryan's favorite residence.
He extensively enlarged the Rives house into a fifty
room Colonial Revival Mansion on four floors. Although not definitely
proven, Ryan's architectural firm was probably the New York concern
of Carrere & Hastings. Thomas Fortune Ryan used the property
both as a rural retreat and as a model farm employing as many as
300 workers. A wide range of agricultural activities were pursued
at this time on Oak Ridge, including an elaborate dairy operation
housed in one of the largest stone dairy complexes in the United
Saddlebred and thoroughbred horses were maintained
on the Estate and entered in competitions and races from California
to England. An equestrian history of Oak Ridge is currently being
prepared in conjunction with the restoration of Ryan's 1909 racetrack.
Community features were represented by 25 tenant houses,
a massive reservoir/water system, a power plant, private Railroad
station, commissary, chapel, telephone company, two schools, and
even a movie theater. Many of these structures survive.
Thomas Fortune Ryan also devoted considerable attention
to gardens and the landscape with the creation of a Formal Italian
Garden, Rose Garden, Virginia's only Crystal Palace-style Greenhouse
(designed by the New York Pierson U-Bar firm), bog garden, golf
course, game preserve and fox hunting course. Many of these garden
and landscape areas are currently or will be under restoration.
Following Thomas Fortune Ryan's death in 1928, the
family continued to own Oak Ridge for another 60 years. The successive
heirs (his widow, son Clendenin, and grandson J. J. Ryan) did not
share the senior Ryan's interest in grand estate development and
the property gradually began to deteriorate. After J. J. Ryan's
death in 1970, Oak Ridge once again reverted to absentee ownership.
With only one caretaker, Oak Ridge entered into a precipitous decline.
In 1989 the property was purchased by John
C. Holland, Sr. of Suffolk, Virginia, who was a salvage yard
operator. The Estate is now owned by Mr. Holland's children. In
addition to the resident proprietors, Oak Ridge has a small support
staff. Since 1990, the Oak Ridge Estate has been under restoration
and documentation. Our goal is to understand all aspects of the
Estate's history and connections while restoring the property as
much as possible to the Thomas Fortune Ryan era.
This historical summary is based on Lee Marmon's book
The Measure and Mirror of Men: Generations of the Oak Ridge Estate
(temporarily out of print).
If any readers of this web site have any original
documentation, letters, photographs, personal effects, or anecdotal
information about any of the Oak Ridge owners, workers, activities,
buildings, or earlier landscape design, please contact the Oak Ridge
Historical Society at the address listed or via e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org