By Lisa Frederick
Photography by John O’Hagan
Like virtually all of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Richmond is so deeply entwined with our nation’s history that it’s impossible to cleave the two apart. From statue-lined Monument Avenue to the Capitol Building designed by Thomas Jefferson, the past is palpable here, as constant a presence as the winding James River. Yet, under the traditional trappings beats a youthful heart with a bold, savvy spirit backed by a very Southern air of warmth and welcome.
“Richmond is unique—it has distinct neighborhoods with lots of character and culture and charm,” says Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe. “There’s a wonderful sense of community.” As an active family with two teenagers and a pair of dogs (plus three more grown children), Dorothy and her husband, Governor Terry McAuliffe, have embraced the chance to explore these enclaves, often hopping on their bicycles to pedal through town. Among their favorites are the picturesque 19th-century Fan District, so named because of the way the streets fan out, and the adjacent Museum District, home to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Historical Society.
The storybook feel of the city at Christmastime truly shines at the Virginia Executive Mansion, the oldest continually occupied governor’s mansion in the country. During the holidays, the McAuliffes open the doors for events such as choral performances by schoolchildren and a Hanukkah celebration.
“We’ve made it a goal to have as many different and diverse groups as we can while we’re here,” Dorothy says. “Our calendar is full, but that’s the way we like it.” Last year the couple invited every town and county in the Commonwealth to send an ornament for the main tree in the ballroom, and the request yielded more than 200 unique creations that have become a treasured part of the décor. “It’s a fun mix,” Dorothy says. “Visitors have heard about the ornament sent from their community, and they look for it on the tree.”Beyond the mansion’s doors, Richmond’s gracious architecture and old-fashioned undercurrent enhance the magic of the festive season. In the Carytown shopping enclave, horse-drawn carriages glide along streets lined with boutiques such as Old World Accents, which brims with nutcrackers, Santa figurines, and other delights. Warm up with eclectic Virginia-style fare at The Roosevelt, housed in a turn-of-the-century building in the venerable Church Hill neighborhood, or locally sourced comfort food at Pasture, one of the McAuliffes’ favorite places to dine.
Illustrious old homes enrobed in their holiday best abound throughout the Richmond area, from the colonial-era Shirley Plantation to Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown. And when dusk descends, thousands of lights transform the spectacular Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden into a twinkling wonderland.
As the winter moon rises over the riverbanks, drift off amid visions of sugarplums at the luxurious Jefferson Hotel, a local landmark since 1895. With beribboned scallops of greenery, oceans of poinsettias, and a lavish tree that presides over the soaring lobby, it puts a fitting flourish on a day well spent in this most resplendent of Southern cities.