Obici property historically significant

Published 10:27 pm Thursday, February 5, 2015

To the editor:

I’m sitting in my kitchen this morning drinking my cup of “America’s favorite tea,” and I’m pretty steamed, even if “Keep Calm and Make Tea” is clearly printed on the front of my cup. I attended a recent meeting to learn how the city of Suffolk proposes to use the old Obici Hospital property, and the steam now is not just coming from the tea.

The economic development folks propose to sell the land to a developer who intends to build 224 garden apartments. I looked at the pictures. Apartments — the ordinary kind that block daylight, the high-density type popping up everywhere. And where do they propose to put this garden of apartment delights? Smack dab in the middle of Virginia Gardening Genius.

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You all know the story of Amedeo Obici, one of Suffolk’s most prominent citizens and the economic force behind the modern peanut. He decided to do something nice for the people of Suffolk, whom he loved. He built a hospital, and he surrounded it with beautiful trees and plantings.

And he didn’t hire just any old landscape guy to do the work. He hired the foremost landscape architect in Virginia at the time, Charles F. Gillette. Mr. Gillette developed the regional style of landscape architecture known as “The Virginia Garden,” a style characterized by understated classicism and attention to detail. We sure could use some of that next to the car dealerships and title loan places.

Some notable Gillette landscape projects in Virginia include the grounds of Richmond College, Nelson House in Yorktown, Kenmore, Virginia House, Agecroft Hall and the Executive Mansion garden, as well as restoration work in Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello, to name just a few.

Gillette’s work at Kenmore, George Washington’s sister’s home in Fredericksburg, got the folks involved in that project thinking, and with a little imaginative fundraising, they kicked off a highly prosperous and equally popular little Virginia garden party called Historic Garden Week. We celebrate that right here in Suffolk.

Of course, we already have a park right across the street from the Obici land. It is behind a strip shopping center’s dumpsters with a side of cemetery. While it is a very nice park and much appreciated, it doesn’t compare with the historic significance the Obici property has to the citizens of Suffolk or its prime location.

To many of our citizens, the Obici property is sacred ground. This green space naturally lends itself to an arboretum and small community botanical garden. The original historic Gillette trees and plantings are still there, although hidden in the rubble and overgrowth and in grave danger of being destroyed.

This important site should be restored and conserved for future generations. And while we’re at it, how about a little plaque for Mr. Obici?

Perhaps a little imaginative fundraising could even get environmentally friendly companies like Planters and Lipton involved in bringing the property back to life.

Susan Andrews