Changing Landscapes: Mary Hughes Turns to Full-Time Winemaking

January 25, 2022 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

The evolution of Mary Hughes continues.

The one-time French and English teacher who became a landscape architect is now going to be a full-time vintner.

Hughes, who started working as a landscape architect in the University’s Office of the Architect in 1996, retired Monday and is stepping into her third career – running Jump Mountain Vineyards in Rockbridge Baths, an enterprise she started in 2006 with her husband, David Vermillion, a retired technical analyst in Information Technology Services.

“The winery is going well,” Hughes said. “We are in a pretty remote area, but little by little we are getting more and more people to know and like our wine, which we market under Jump Mountain. We have 4,000 grapevines and six varieties.”

Their marketing is limited to the Staunton, Charlottesville and Lexington areas because their distributor went out of business during the COVID pandemic.

“Our wine is available wherever our little feet can carry it,” Hughes said.

A French major in college, Hughes was drawn to wine during a year spent studying in France. Years later, she and Vermillion became interested in vineyards and studied viticulture and oenology at Piedmont Virginia Community College. They subsequently bought property and planted vines.

“Selling grapes is not all that easy to do. You don’t make much money at it, so after we had the vines that were producing, we built the winery,” Hughes said. “We started making wine under the tutelage of Matthieu Finot, the winemaker at King Family Vineyards, a very patient Frenchman, a consultant who guides our steps and who holds us back from the brink of absolute destruction. We have learned by doing.”

Among the things they learned was how to cope with the stresses and pests such as bees, bears, birds and wasps that plague the grapes.

“It is farming,” Hughes said. “People think of it as a very glamorous thing, but it has all the pitfalls of farming. I don’t know if we will ever be big big. We’re at 4 acres of grapes now.”

Winemaking is Hughes’ third career. She started out as a French and English teacher. She bought a fixer-upper in Norfolk and after she had finished with the house, she turned her attention to the small, neglected yard.

“I took classes at the community college there in horticulture and landscape design,” Hughes said. “The landscape design class was very interesting, but it raised a lot of questions.”

In response to those questions, Hughes’ instructor suggested landscape architecture, then an unfamiliar field.

“It sounded wonderful, and I thought, ‘This is great,’” Hughes said. “UVA had a program that catered to people who didn’t have a degree in architecture or a background in art and they would take people from any background.

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“I came up and interviewed, talked with Reuben Rainey, who had come here with a divinity school degree and had gotten his landscape architecture degree and was chair of the department at the time,” Hughes said. “He convinced me my background in French and comparative literature was not a detriment to my changing careers.”

After earning a master’s degree from UVA, Hughes returned home to Ohio and took a job with a landscape architecture firm in Akron. That gave her an overview of the business.

“I worked on any project that came in the door,” she said. “I worked on residential projects, city streetscape projects, park projects. The value to me of coming to a small landscape architecture practice is I got to see how the business operates, from soup to nuts. In a small firm, you have to pitch in and do everything. I wrote proposals; I did interviews to get jobs, met with clients, developed designs, worked on construction drawings and went to construction sites. I saw everything from beginning to end and got a really good sense of the business of landscape architecture and how things get commissioned, designed and built.”

While this gave Hughes a strong overview of landscape architecture, it frustrated her to complete a project and then walk away.

“You don’t have a stewardship, long-term contact role and you are always under the pressure of time, and time is money,” Hughes said. “When you are a person who is by nature a research geek, it is frustrating because you would like to be able to drill down into topics in more depth and you can’t do that.”

With a foundation in commercial landscape architecture, and her need for stewardship, Hughes then took a position with the National Park Service’s Historic Landscape Program.

“I ended up moving to Omaha, Nebraska, serving as the regional historic landscape architect for a multi-state region,” Hughes said. “This was a fabulous experience with wonderful colleagues, and I traveled all the time. I traveled in the warm months of the year probably five days a week, pretty much every week, so I covered a lot of territory for a lot of national parks, worked on historic preservation issues, a lot of landscapes and I had a wonderful experience.”

But eventually the travel took a toll. She saw an opportunity when UVA advertised for a landscape architect.

“Somebody saw the advertisement for UVA and they forwarded it to me,” Hughes said. “When I went to school here, there was not a University landscape architect position, so I didn’t know what it would all be about.”

Hughes contacted Samuel “Pete” Anderson, who was the architect for the University at the time. Anderson had a trip planned to Seattle, so he built in a stopover in Omaha and met Hughes there.

“We spent about nine hours straight just talking and really hit it off,” Hughes said, noting that they stay in touch and that Anderson, who retired from UVA in 2003, is designing a tasting room for the winery.

Hughes returned to Charlottesville in January 1996 to take the position.

“I blew in with the second blizzard of 1995-96,” she said. “That was the year that Charlottesville experienced two major blizzards. Kids were out of school in December for weeks. I was driving with my two dogs and all of my house plants from Omaha to Charlottesville in the second blizzard and it was like it was sweeping me along west to east.”

Mary Hughes surveying construction project while construction workers work
Landscape architect Mary Hughes is used to surveying a project while it is under construction. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

For the next 25 years, Hughes got to exercise her sense of stewardship.

“Landscapes are dynamic, unlike buildings, where you are mostly trying to keep them from falling apart by fixing the roof and keeping the paint on and keeping the basement watertight,” she said. “The landscape is more interesting, in that it is supposed to change. It grows, it changes, and I liked being around long enough to see and guide that process of change. It is particularly important for the landscape in a place like the University of Virginia to have a steward, someone who is around for a long time.”

This is one of Hughes’ qualities that Alice Raucher, the current architect for the University, will miss.

“Many will describe in detail the incredible impact Mary has had in her stewardship of the landscape of Grounds during her long tenure at UVA, due simply, in my opinion, to her absolute love of the place,” Raucher wrote in an email. “It is her encyclopedic knowledge of all things UVA – all things Virginia – her wise counsel to me as a newcomer to Grounds in 2015 and her wicked sense of humor, experienced on a daily basis, that I will miss the most. Mary has exemplified the role of dedicated servant leader in her role as University landscape architect.”

Hughes is a familiar figure on Grounds, walking her West Highland white terrier and her Scottish terrier.

“Like her beloved terriers of the Scottish Highlands, Mary is smart, independent, loyal and very feisty,” wrote Connie Warnock, an associate University architect. “Her devotion to UVA was always at the heart of her bold vision and dauntless advocacy for design innovation and excellence in the landscape. My memory of the plucky redhead and her jaunty canine companions diligently surveying every inch of the UVA Grounds will always bring a smile.”

Hughes has had a solid impact on Grounds. Among her accomplishments were managing the University’s first Landscape Master Plan, formulated by Michael Vergason Landscape Architects in 1998, and leading and managing the 2013 Academical Village Cultural Landscape Report, compiled by Heritage Landscapes and Rivanna Archaeology.

“There was almost no archaeology done at UVA when I started because it seemed almost sacrilegious to have open pits in the sacred center of the University,” Hughes said.

Hughes was ahead of state regulations in promoting more sustainable stormwater management practices at UVA, which resulted in signature projects like the iconic Dell Pond and Meadow Creek daylighting project designed by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.

“The Dell stream looks like it’s a natural stream, but there is a whole bypass system that takes the water that would otherwise be flooding the park and puts it into a pipe when it gets to a certain level,” Hughes said. “The stream stays within its banks and you can use the adjacent land area. It will be the same case with Ivy Corridor when that is built – the same bypass system will be used and very few people will ever know that it is a highly engineered system.”

Stewardship continuity is important to Hughes in maintaining a landscape such as the Dell.

“It is hard to believe it has been that many years since it was brand-spanking new and it won all these national awards,” Hughes said. “It was such a pioneering project, but parts of it have gotten overgrown; some of the benches are falling apart. It is changing and it is helpful to have been there in 2004 to know the design intent of the Dell.

“Now it is going to have the Contemplative Commons building added, so the context of the Dell Pond is certainly going to change. There have to be interventions, and there will be a process of change and it is great to have been there during the beginning, and to be able to be involved in guiding the next chapter.”

Hughes also served on the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, which led to the construction of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which Hughes helped shepherd on behalf of the Office of the Architect.

“It was amazing to see it built and appreciated and I think it has meant a lot to the community,” Hughes said. “The Office of the Architect was involved both in promoting the project in its early years and getting endorsement by the Board of Visitors; was involved with selecting the design team and we steered the project through the design phase and were onboard through the construction phase. We were pretty much involved from beginning to end – even before the beginning.”

Mary Hughes speaking at a panel discussion
Mary Hughes served on the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, which produced the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Hughes was also involved with the South Lawn Project, including the somber but creative interpretation of the Kitty Foster home site and cemetery, designed by Walter Hood. She helped guide the design of the Ivy Corridor development, currently under construction, from its inception, and managed some 10 years of summer student Cultural Landscape Survey internships.

Hughes included landscape in discussions on the architecture of the Grounds, according to Nancy Takahashi, associate professor emerita of landscape architecture in the School of Architecture.

“Before Mary arrived to the Office of the University Architect, the discourse of the UVA Grounds focused primarily on its buildings,” Takahashi said. “Through her mindset and values as a landscape architect, Mary worked to elevate the role of the landscape as equal to the buildings. She amassed an unmatched knowledge of the Grounds through her own personal research, directing student interns and through the many landscape consultant studies her office oversaw.

“She created the first in-depth narrative of how the Grounds evolved beyond the Academical Village in the context of changing times and culture. That scholarship has been incredibly important and foundational in thinking about how the Lawn and the greater Grounds should evolve now and in the future, as UVA embraces goals for a sustainable and socially just campus in such a historic context.

“Many of us in the Architecture School have been beneficiaries of the presentations about the UVA campus that she is often called upon to give,” Takahashi said. “As a member of the Arboretum and Landscape Committee, over the years I’ve been appreciative of the informed background she provides for the projects under consideration. In her tenure, Mary has impacted every aspect of the Grounds for students, the greater community and visitors to enjoy, and she leaves a design legacy of rigor, care and intellect.”

Julia Monteith, an associate University planner in the Office of the Architect, said, “Mary is both visionary and pragmatic in her approach to projects and initiatives at UVA, and has consistently emphasized the importance of the landscape in the campus fabric we know as Grounds. She is a valued colleague and always brings something positive and pithy to the conversation, enlivening our discussions.”

Hughes participated in many large projects on Grounds, including the 2005 moving of Varsity Hall, one of the first infirmaries built for a college campus, designed with a unique air-handling system. The building was moved about 185 feet northeast to its current location to accommodate the construction of Robertson Hall at the McIntire School of Commerce.

“It was amazing that they could just do that, and I remember it had rained, so it was incredibly muddy the day they were trying to move it on rollers,” she said. “The Health System wanted it for a little bit, and they were going to move it down into the Lane Avenue area, but we would have had to take all of the overhead wires down in order to get it down there. That proved infeasible, so we ended up moving it a few yards.”

While Thomas Jefferson’s original Academical Village is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the rest of Grounds also has a historical context.

“Another project that nobody knows about, but is very gratifying to me, is that we got a Getty [Foundation] grant when they were doing their college and university preservation programs to do a historic preservation framework plan for the University of Virginia, writ large,” Hughes said. “Up until that point, the Academical Village was the sole focus of UVA’s preservation program. [Former architect for the historic buildings and Grounds] Murray Howard’s old position was called ‘Curator of the Academical Village,’ so it was completely focused on the Jefferson buildings. But we have McKim Mead and White buildings; we have lots of historic buildings that weren’t recognized as being historic because they weren’t designed by Jefferson.

“This preservation framework plan evaluated all the buildings and landscapes at the University of Virginia that were 40 years old or older and evaluated their significance and integrity,” she said. “It articulated the history of UVA extended past the death of Jefferson, and to many others who were important. It really expanded what was regarded as historic at the University. It is not something that anybody but preservation people know exists, but I think it is a really important milestone and will be … a guide to stewardship decisions that are being made in the future.”

While her work involved the entire Grounds, Hughes has her special places.

“I love the pavilion gardens,” she said. “I also love the old cemetery, walking through there – I love the headstones. There is a lot of history, especially in the oldest part of the cemetery.”

Despite the projects still pending, Hughes said it is time to move on.

“My husband retired last year, and I probably would have retired before this if it hadn’t been for COVID slowing everything down,” she said. “I felt like I was involved in projects that unfortunately I am still going to be leaving unfinished, but I guess it is impossible to wrap everything into neat little bows.”

All in all, getting into landscape architecture was a great choice, she said.

“I never could have anticipated all the avenues it would lead me down,” Hughes said. “One thing I love about it as a profession is that it covers such a wide array of issues that one is never bored. Having been in the private sector and having been in the public sector, I like working in the public sector. I love the feeling of connection I have to the place over time, and the stewardship role is very satisfying.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications