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Robert Rives Home


Robert Rives
1764 - 1845


Alexander Rives


William Porcher Miles


Thomas Fortune Ryan


Painting of Oak Ridge by Suzor-Cote


Railroad Station


Rose Garden
c. 1913


Views of Oak Ridge, postcard by W. E. Burgess

 
Historical Summary

Oak 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 of restoration.

History

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 States.

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: historicalsociety@oakridgeestate.com

 
     
 
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