Published: December 12, 2006
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation announced December 8 that it plans to sell Carter’s Grove, its 400-acre property on the James River, eight miles from the outdoor history museum’s main complex.
The property includes an Eighteenth Century mansion furnished in the Colonial Revival taste, the Wolstenholme Towne site, the Winthrop Rockefeller Archaeology Museum and the first slave quarters reconstructed by Colonial Williamsburg, a pioneer in the interpretation of African American life in early America.
“Our guiding principle in evaluating the future of Carter’s Grove has been the preservation of this important property,” said Colin Campbell, president and chairman of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Carter’s Grove has been closed since 2003 while the foundation assessed its future. The foundation hired D.R. Horne & Company to advise it in the disposition of the property.
Campbell said that Williamsburg’s mission, “to tell the story of citizenship and becoming America in the Eighteenth Century,” was “best accomplished in the Historic Area, where we present and interpret Revolutionary War-era Williamsburg. Carter’s Grove, with its multiple stories to tell, does not support this strategic focus.”
Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Elizabeth S. Kostelny, executive director of APVA Preservation Virginia, issued joint statements supporting the foundation’s plan.
Said Moe, “It is sometimes necessary, and even desirable, to transfer significant historic properties from public or nonprofit ownership to private individuals. When that occurs, the most important thing is to ensure the permanent preservation of the site through easements and other protective instruments.”
Obliquely acknowledging changes in visitation that have affected many outdoor and historic-house museums, Kostelny noted, “APVA Preservation Virginia recognizes that the future of preservation is in finding uses for these structures in the context of contemporary life.”
Colonial Williamsburg’s attendance has dropped from 1.2 million visitors annually in the 1980s to roughly 700,000 in recent years. Attendance increased in 2005 and is expected to be up again in 2006, said Tom Shrout, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of public affairs.
It cost Colonial Williamsburg nearly $2 million annually to keep Carter’s Grove open and “in the six figures” to maintain it closed, Campbell told the Virginia Gazette.
Colonial Williamsburg’s deficit is currently about $37 million.
Announcement of the sale triggered alarm among some museum professionals, who fear that the sale will set a precedent for other cash-strapped institutions. Colonial Williamsburg’s former director of archaeology, Ivor Noel Hume, is among those who have publicly denounced the sale.
Public sympathy for keeping Carter’s Grove open has also run high. On October 27, the Newport News Daily Press published dozens of letters advocating that the property be sustained as a museum through light commercial or residential development.
The property’s assessed value is $12.5 million, a figure far below its market value, sources say.
“We haven’t come up with an asking price or decided how we are going to market Carter’s Grove. We want to work closely with the National Trust and the APVA to finalize restrictions on the property,” said Shrout.
The new owner will be subject to stringent restrictions aimed at ensuring long-term protection of the site’s historic, architectural, visual, archeological and environmental resources. Residential and commercial development of the property will also be prohibited, the foundation said. Prospective buyers must demonstrate a commitment to preservation, an interest in colonial history and the capacity to care for the property.
Colonial Williamsburg anticipates retaining rights to pasturelands used in its rare breeds program.
A “right of first offer” clause will enable the foundation to reacquire Carter’s Grove, should the property return to the market.
Archeological artifacts related to the Carter’s Grove site and others in the Colonial Williamsburg collection will be displayed in new exhibition space.
Wolstenholme Towne was settled around 1620 by the London Company of Virginia investors. Robert “King” Carter purchased the property in 1709. The mansion dates to 1755. In 1928, Archibald and Mollie McCrea of Lawrenceville, Va., bought and restored Carter’s Grove. The Sealantic Fund, a former Rockefeller philanthropy, conveyed Carter’s Grove to Colonial Williamsburg in 1969.
Colonial Williamsburg made improvements to the mansion and grounds, conducted extensive archeological investigations and constructed slave quarters, an archeological museum, a reception center and other support buildings.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was founded in 1926 as a not-for-profit educational institution preserving and operating the restored Eighteenth Century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum.
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