By Stephen May
WILLIAMSBURG, VA. – Over the years, , which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, built a reputation in some quarters of being too pristine, too touristy and too commercial. To naysayers, it was a nice place to visit, but something of a tourist trap, obscuring the history lessons it set out to impart.
Whether such criticism was justified or not, there is no question that today, as this unique site enters the Twenty-First Century, it has become a place where visitors of all levels of sophistication and interests can spend rewarding times.
After 75 years of experience and evolution, is, in a word, a place where dedicated dealers and serious collectors, along with less informed and focused visitors, can pick and choose among a remarkable variety of opportunities to see and learn. Some will be attracted to demonstrations by costumed trades people and militia drills, while others will take advantage of the chance to study Eighteenth Century architecture and city planning or immerse themselves in large displays of folk and decorative arts in museums and venerable structures.
Located about 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., the expansive historic site boasts 88 original Eighteenth Century structures and numerous additional houses, shops and public buildings that have been reconstructed on their original foundations. Five museums and five hotels augment the attraction of the Historic Area and its many gardens. Beautifully maintained, thoughtfully staffed by costumed interpreters and animated by frequent period activities, Virginia’s Eighteenth Century capital offers as pleasant history lessons as one could imagine.
The Historic Area recreates Williamsburg as it appeared on the eve of the American Revolution. An intriguing mix of sights, sounds and demonstrations immerse visitors in an evocative atmosphere. Historic homes, imposing public buildings and colonial trade shops, most fully furnished and staffed by “people of the past,” provide unparalleled insights into what it was like to live in the heyday of this important community. The past really does come alive in entertaining and informative ways.
Operated by a non-for-profit educational foundation, with an annual budget of more than $200 million, employs a staff of about 3,500. It is headed by chairman, president and CEO Colin G. Campbell, a longtime foundation board member and former president of the Rockefeller Brothers Trust and Wesleyan University. Campbell’s wife, Nancy, is a veteran leader of historic preservation efforts nationally and in Connecticut.
” is America’s premier living history museum and one of the most significant historical restorations in the world,” says Campbell. “[It conveys] the ideals and values on which this nation is based.”
From 1699 to 1780 Williamsburg served as capital of Britain’s largest, most powerful and most influential American colony. During those years, the carefully planned community boasted an extensive variety of shops, taverns, government buildings and residential structures, and played host to a “who’s who” of American colonial leaders. Here, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and George Mason, among others, promoted the ideals of liberty, independence and freedom on which the nation was founded and which have guided future generations of Americans and others around the world.
After Jefferson moved Virginia’s capital to Richmond in 1781, Williamsburg became a sleepy town with little activity and deteriorating buildings. It was saved for posterity starting in the mid-1920s when the Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of Williamsburg’s historic Bruton Parish Church, enlisted the help of Standard Oil heir John D. Rockefeller, Jr, to restore the town to its Eighteenth Century appearance. To keep his involvement in the project secret, at the outset the famous philanthropist used cryptic messages to guide Goodwin in carrying out their plans. In a December 1926 telegram authorizing purchase of the first property, Rockefeller urged the prelate to “purchase the antique” and signed it “David’s Father.”
With growing enthusiasm, Rockefeller worked with Goodwin “to assemble the homes and shops, the gardens and greens of the only American capital capable of re-creation in its Eighteenth Century form,” in Campbell’s words. By the time he died in 1960, Rockefeller had contributed $68 million to . In his efforts he was ably abetted by his formidable wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a devoted historic preservationist and early champion of American folk art. They spent part of each year at Bassett Hall, which has recently reopened for public visitation.
For just over three-quarters of a century has provided leadership and set standards of excellence for the American preservation movement. In the process of becoming what is called “the largest living history museum in the United States,” it developed methods of research, education, interpretation and restoration that have inspired and guided historic preservationists all over the nation. It is, as historian Philip Kopper puts it, “the jewel in the crown of American historic preservation.”
Chartered in 1669, Williamsburg is one of the country’s oldest planned cities, centering on Duke of Gloucester Street, 90 feet wide and extending exactly one mile from the Wren Building of the College of William and Mary to the Capitol.
There are so many interesting structures to visit in this area that it is difficult to single out those of the greatest significance. Any list of must-see government or public places, however, would certainly include: the impressively reconstructed Governor’s Palace, residence of Virginia’s royal governor; the Capitol, also reconstructed and containing rooms where colonial Virginia’s upper and lower houses of government met, where an audacious resolution was adopted in May 1776 declaring independence from England; the T-shaped Courthouse, extant since 1770, home of municipal and county courts until 1932, and the Magazine, dating to 1776, a brick storehouse for arms and ammunition.
Other outstanding structures include Bruton Parish Church, an Episcopal church in continuous use since 1715 and a reminder of the significant role religion played in Eighteenth Century Virginia when church and state were united. Raleigh Tavern, originally built in 1717 and reconstructed in 1932, was the first building opened to the public. It was the scene of such momentous events as the decision by members of the General Assembly, which had been dissolved by the royal governor in 1769, to boycott British goods, and the founding of Phi Beta Kappa in 1776.
The massive Wren Building (1700), at the entrance to the College of William and Mary at the western end of Duke of Gloucester Street, is the oldest academic building in use in America.
Visits to individual houses are inevitably educational experiences. In the handsome, symmetrical brick mansion of George Wythe, for example, you learn about Virginia’s ranking legal scholar, a mentor to Jefferson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the most influential figures of his era. For a variety of reasons he is little known today.
Peyton Randolph was president of the First and Second Constitutional Congresses, one of the most powerful political figures of his day and Williamsburg’s leading citizen on the eve of the Revolution. He seemed destined to play a major role in the contest with Britain and its aftermath — and might possibly have become the first American president — but he died in 1775, before he could participate in events that would have ensured his immortality. Randolph’s elegant, painstakingly restored home, part of which dates to 1715, reopened not long ago, offering significant insights into his distinguished career and posh lifestyle.
In addition to the wonderfully evocative Historic Area structures, ambience and costumed interpreters, boasts world-class museums devoted to American folk art and the decorative arts. For sophisticated collectors and dealers, these are likely to be highlights of a visit
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is named in honor of that pioneering collector of a then-neglected facet of our cultural heritage. It opened in 1957, the first museum ever dedicated solely to American folk art. The building’s galleries overflow with delightful and often fascinating paintings, furniture, carved objects, embroideries, toys, weathervanes, whirligigs and decorative household rdf_Descriptions. They were created by untutored artists from the early Eighteenth Century to the present.
It is easy to understand why “Baby in a Red Chair,” circa 1825, a painting by an unidentified artist (possibly from Pennsylvania) of a chubby, seated cherub, is an all-time favorite of visitors to the museum. There are a number of captivating works by Edward Hicks, the Quaker painter, ranging from versions of his “Peaceable Kingdom” to “Declaration of Independence.” Another appealing highlight is Charles C. Hofmann’s colorful, activity-filled “View of the Montgomery County [PA] Almshouse Building,” 1878.
The Folk Art Museum is hosting a series of outstanding loaned exhibitions this year, starting with “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly,” an astounding assemblage of 180 objects made of wood, aluminum and gold foil. It was created with religious fervor by a government janitor in Washington, D.C., between 1950 and 1964. This testimony to faith, perseverance and imagination, loaned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, will be displayed through September 6, 2004.
A delightful collection of carved wooden eagles, owls, roosters, lions and tigers are featured in “Schimmel and Mountz: Two Pennsylvania Carvers,” on view through December 2003. German-born William Schimmel emigrated to the Cumberland Valley, near Carlisle, and in his spare time whittled boldly conceived, exuberant birds and animals covered with gesso, plaster or varnish. Aaron Mountz, a Cumberland Valley farmer, carved more carefully detailed, unadorned pine birds that compete with Schimmel’s menagerie for whimsy and appeal.
“Lions & Eagles & Bulls: Early American Tavern and Inn Signs,” organized by the Connecticut Historical Society and on view November 3 – September 6, 2004, will showcase a variety of the colorful and imaginative wooden signboards that once identified places along American roads. Should be great fun.
Fans of Nineteenth Century fancy and figured coverlets and of antique toys and dollhouses will find special treats in separate loaned shows devoted to those genres this year.
Entered through the reconstructed Public Hospital of 1773, the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum opened in 1985. Its 11 galleries contain a remarkable and carefully organized trove of American and English furniture, paintings, prints, maps, silver, glass, ceramics and costumes.
Appealing to diverse interests are study galleries where ceramics, furniture, maps and prints, metals and textiles are permanently displayed. Also on view are notable portraits of King George III from the studio of Allan Ramsey and of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, and a gilt version of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s celebrated “Diana.” The latter stands at the head of a long reflecting pool in the lovely Lila Acheson Wallace Garden.
Another memorable sight is an elegant, green, Neo-classic Grecian Sofa, 1815-25, attributed to William King of Georgetown, now part of Washington, D.C. King helped refurnish the White House after it was burned by the British in 1814.
A photographic exhibition, “Building a Museum: The Wallace Legacy,” up for viewing through December, traces the manner in which Lila and DeWitt Wallace, co-founders of Reader’s Digest, funded the museum that bears the Wallace name.
The museum is also hosting this year “Jewelry: The Collection” (through December), featuring rarely seen English and American rings, brooches, necklaces and earrings. Of particular interest is a gold “Mourning Ring,” circa 1800, thought to hold the hair of George Washington under its glass face.
From April 19 through September 6, 2004 “Different by Design: Furniture Styles in Early America” will display pairs of chests, chairs, tables, clocks, desks and bookcases that reflect distinctive regional influences. The eight pairs of furniture will also document the diversity of urban versus rural styles in this country in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
“The Language of Clothing,” billed as a “blockbuster” exhibition and on view through February 16, showcases the finest Eighteenth Century men’s and women’s fashions. Authentic costumes ranging from maternity ensembles to black gowns and from formal dresses to men’s suits, as well as children’s clothes and fashion accessories, provide insights into changing ideas of the aesthetics of clothing and into those who wore it.
Other exhibitions this year run the gamut from mezzotints to silver nutmeg grinders and from early portraits of southerners to pewter in ‘s collections.
One new attraction for many visitors is Bassett Hall, the surprisingly modest Eighteenth Century white frame house on 585 acres that Mr and Mrs John D. Rockefeller, Jr, occupied while they oversaw restoration of in the 1930s and 40s. Acquired in 1933 by the Rockefellers, the structure was restored and expanded over the years and is today furnished much as it was when the family lived there.
Throughout the house weathervanes, chalkware, American pottery and artwork by self-taught artists mix with more formal objects and furnishings from diverse historic periods. The simple but elegant dining room, for example, features a rooster weathervane on the mantel shelf, a long dining table, various folk-art portraits, and two 1936 paintings of Williamsburg by modernist master Charles Sheeler.
Recently reopened after a two-year renovation, the house also features an exhibition documenting the role the Rockefellers played in resurrecting . In addition to touring Bassett Hall, visitors can see the adjacent teahouse, smokehouse and dairy. This is an important destination for all interested in the central role the Rockefellers played in making possible.
offers four colonial dining taverns, replete with Eighteenth Century fare and a costumed wait staff, and five hotel properties — highlighted by the famed, recently renovated Williamsburg Inn — in the Historic Area. It is a special treat to stay at one of the 27 Colonial houses within the site that are set aside for guests.
Located some seven miles east of and maintained by is Carter’s Grove, an impressive Eighteenth Century mansion and plantation. The handsome, expansive brick house was restored in the Colonial Revival style in the 1930s. The grounds include the site of a Seventeenth Century settlement, reconstructed slave quarters, the Winthrop Rockefeller Archaeological Museum and a reception center.
Tastefully restored, intelligently interpreted and maintained with scrupulous historical accuracy, comes across today in a manner that is likely to win over even the most dedicated naysayers. Its evolving historical presentations suggest ways in which we can better understand social and political issues of our own times. Most of all it is a richly rewarding place in which the knowledgeable as well as the uninformed can learn a lot — and have fun doing it.
As philanthropist and benefactors DeWitt Wallace once wrote, “Everyone agrees that is the most significant and fascinating historical restoration in the country. Any person is a better citizen for having spent three or four days in this unique spot.”
There are a number of good books about . For those seriously interested in learning more, the best may well be Philip Kopper’s . First published in 1986 and revised, updated and expanded in 2001, this beautiful volume traces the community’s history, its decline and resurrection, and the present and future of the place. Bolstered by some 200 superb color photographs and scores of vintage photos, this is the invaluable resource for history buffs, preservationists and fans. The large, 319-page book is produced by Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Another valuable and informative source is George Humphrey Vetter’s Williamsburg Before and After: The Rebirth of Virginia’s Capital, a lavishly illustrated, 198-page book that chronicles Williamsburg’s history and offers thumbnail descriptions of major structures. Emphasis is on “before” and “after” stories and images. First published by the Foundation in 1988, its eighth printing was in 1999.
“The purpose of is to recreate, accurately, the environment of the men and women of Eighteenth Century Williamsburg, and to bring about such an understanding of their lives and times that present and future generations may more vividly appreciate the contributions of these early Americans to the ideals and culture of our country.”
–John D. Rockefeller, Jr
“Preserved in masonry and weatherboard, and in time, ideas and experience, gives special definition and meaning to the history that made us a country, the understanding of which should inform our lives, the lives of our children, and the lives of future generations.”
–Colin G. Campbell
For information about call 800-HISTORY or visit www..org.