Return to story

Virginia was early love for birthplace's new leader

April 28, 2009 12:35 am


This file photo shows a costumed interpreter greeting a horse at the birthplace site. LawlisLucy2.jpg.jpg


LUCY LAWLISS didn't learn everything she needed to know in kindergarten.

The historical landscape architect's watershed moment came in the second grade, when her elementary school in Connecticut brought students to Williamsburg to learn about American history.

The look, feel and fabric of Colonial life in Virginia--from the classic brick buildings to the costumed artisans to the vibrant landscapes--convinced the youngster that she'd come back to Virginia for college.

Lawliss--now in her first year as superintendent of the George Washington Birthplace national park in Westmoreland County--was true to her second-grade decision.

Years after that youthful visit, she enrolled at Mary Washington College, studying art history.

She loved the school and campus, but a sister's enchantment with the deep South at the University of Tennessee drew her further south, as well.

Lawliss ended up at the University of Georgia, where she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in landscape architecture and historic preservation.

She went on to become the first historical landscape architect in the National Park Service's Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta.

She transferred to Washington in 2001 to help manage the national cultural landscape program.

Lawliss, who lives in Fredericksburg, comes to this new position from a group of four parks in the San Francisco East Bay area--Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park, John Muir National Historic Site, Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site and Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument.

The job here involves running the 550-acre site where George Washington was born in 1732, and the Thomas Stone National Historical Site in Maryland, which commemorates the life of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Lawliss said her background in historic landscape architecture serves her well coming into this assignment.

"In the past in the National Park Service, the buildings got all the attention and everything flowed from that," she said.

With input from folks like her, the park service has broadened its focus, realizing the importance of understanding how all parts of historic and culturally important sites were used.

Lawliss, who's teaching a historic landscape course at the University of Mary Washington, said the approach uses study of a site's whole landscape to better understand its history and the way land use has changed through the years.

At the Washington Birthplace park, the focus starts with the fact that Washington was born on what was then Pope's Creek Plantation.

Telling the story of the Washington family in general, and the way the small farm and plantation evolved through the years, is a constant challenge.

At the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front Park, she was proud of strides made to reach into the black community to find a rich resource: women who had actually worked at the park.

"One of the stories told at the park is the way the shipyard needed a work force, and got it by bringing tens of thousands of black workers to that plant, bringing Jim Crow along with them," she said.

Lawliss said she'd like to get oral histories from Westmoreland and other Northern Neck families who have a history with the site.

Though she's still learning about Washington and the park, she strongly believes in bringing history alive there with costumed interpreters and working spots that range from a Colonial kitchen to a blacksmith shop.

"Budget considerations may dictate that we use creative ways to get this done, as we are now with our heritage 4-H club, but it's critical to make history real to visitors, especially our younger ones."

The landscape architect in her also wants to find additional ways to let people enjoy the park's natural resources.

"We're looking at something as simple as having the park open certain evenings, but closing off some of the roads for a time," she said. "This would let families explore without worrying about cars or traffic."

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.