Author: Tim Brinkley
“Improbable. Providential. These are the words that leap into my mind as I construct the story of Petersburg Home for Ladies. Improbable in its inception, improbable in its history, improbable in its current existence. How does one explain the Petersburg Home for Ladies? I make a frank and unabashed answer: our second word, Providential.”
Hibernia Cuthbert: We Ladies
Mary Dunnington Friend Whyte (January 20, 1877 – November 23, 1955)
Founder, Petersburg Home for LadiesMember of Board and President 1925-1955
To tell the story of Petersburg Home for Ladies is to speak of the legacy and vision of those women who believed in cause with such earnest intentions that a city rose to support their mission. What began as an idea in the mind of Mary Whyte, from the rocking chair which sat upon her porch at 22 Franklin Street, has grown into a destination for those who desire to connect with the genteel lifestyle of a bygone era throughout their aging years.
On March 5, 1925 a group of unassuming visionaries met at the local YMCA, located on North Union Street in Petersburg Virginia, to formally organize and commence the association to be known as Petersburg Home for Ladies. Officially opening on July 1, 1925 at 407 Harrison Street, the fervor and passions, from whence these visionaries drew their ideals, established Peterburg Home for Ladies as that which filled a long felt need within the Petersburg community.
Mary Dunnington Friend Whyte was named after her maternal grandmother Mary Ann Dunnington Venable who lived near Farmville Virginia from 1815-1877. Mary Whyte was born on January 20, 1877 and was a mere eleven months old at her grandmother’s passing. Perhaps it is this connection with her past which spurned her desires to support the elderly population.
During the 1920’s Mary Whyte lived in a modest home on Franklin Street where passersby would stop for momentary chats to take bereft from the elements or simply share the local news. Her husband, Thomas J. Whyte (nicknamed Tucker since childhood) traversed the streets of Petersburg traveling down Monroe Street and along the river in his dark business suit to Friend and Company. Like many local businessmen, he may have paused to watch the construction of the bridge over the Appomattox (Stairway from River Street: digital ID VA1812.photos.192336p Library of Congress Prints. Rob Tucher) Innovation was the talk of the times, and the front porch of 22 Franklin Street was certainly no exception to this type of enterprising exchange.
With local newspaper, The Progress Index, a stone’s throw away and the faint sound of presses rattling off the latest contents, did it every cross Mary’s mind that her story would be the next to grace the pages? As her ideas formulated, friends and business-folk alike rallied in support of her unprecedented concepts. As culmination of thoughts, prayers and luncheon conversations took shape, the March 5, 1925 Progress Index wrote, “Organize Body To Establish Woman’s Home.” The ideas were now tangible realities as newly appointed Board of Directors Officers held titles for the first time which were now accountable to a system of bylaws that remain largely unaltered to this day.
Mary Dunnington Friend Whyte presided over the Board of Directors for the first three decades of the Ladies’ Homes’ History. With “Miss Mary” at the helm, Petersburg Home for Ladies grew from the initial three residents living at 407 Harrison Street. By 1928 the Ladies Home purchased 405 Harrison Street.
“The first lady to be received into the house at 405 Harrison Street, and one of the Home’s most distinguished residents, was Miss. Nora Davidson, who brought her companion, a Mrs. Davenport. Miss Nora, whose full name was Nora Fontaine Maury Davidson, is credited with be the “originator of (our national) Memorial Day. (She was a ) charter member of the Ladies Memorial Association and the Petersburg chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. (Historic maker placed on the building at 126 South Adams Street)” In her home (the handsome brick building still standing at 126 South Adams Street) she and her sister ran the Confederate School for 43 years, Miss Nora being the Principal. She was born February 19, 1836 and died a resident of the Petersburg Home for Ladies on February 10, 1929” (Excerpt taken from We Ladies pg. 31)
The initial years of Petersburg Home for Ladies were no small undertaking. Navigating the Great Depression, and yet still procuring a myriad of donations, Miss Mary forged ahead believing in growth for the purpose of expanding the unchanging mission of Petersburg Home for Ladies: “To provide security, companionship, care and love and to be an agent of blessing to all whom we touch.” A third home was purchased on October 23, 1930 leaving the home to occupy 407, 405 and newly acquired 401 Harrison Street buildings. By July 1936 plans were set in place to expand again. A building committee was set in place and plans were solidified to build a new home modeled after the Ludwell-Paradise House in Williamsburg at 36 West Fillmore Street.
December 15, 1952 marked the last meeting over which Miss Mary presided; although she remained President until her death on November 23, 1955. First Vice President Mrs. Herbert Lightfoot occupied Mrs. Mary’s chair until her passing. Mary Dunnington Friend Whyte is buried in the “Old Ground” section of Blandford Cemetary. In her final resting place, she is surrounded by her loved ones, just as she surrounded so many with love throughout her life. Petersburg Home for Ladies is both privileged and honored to have Miss Mary as our founder. Her legacy lives on through the enumerable lives that have been changed through her vision to found Petersburg Home for Ladies.