With its conception dating back to 1927, Merchants Square is recognized as one of the earliest – if not the first – planned shopping districts in the United States. While John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin were envisioning the restoration of Virginia’s colonial capital, they realized that the business community already in Williamsburg would need to be folded into the master plan.
Shops and other small businesses, many located on the footprint of the original colonial town, would ideally be moved into a new, customer-oriented shopping district in order to make way for the accurate restoration of the rest of the town. The buildings for this “Merchants Square” would not be designed to duplicate the architecture of the 18th-century Historic Area, but to harmonize with the character of the restoration.
During those early years, many of the shop owners agreed to sell their properties to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and move into this new area of what was then considered “Uptown” – the end of Duke of Gloucester Street near the College of William & Mary. The A & P grocery store, Frazier-Callis men’s store, Person Motor Co., Sam Friedman’s dry goods store, and others who recognized the importance of the restoration found Merchants Square to be an even better location for their businesses.
Buildings in the new Merchants Square were set back farther from the street, offering easy pedestrian access. Power and telephone lines were placed underground. Large trees were planted and modern elements such as air conditioning ducts and garage equipment were concealed behind plantings and shrubs. In later years, the street was closed to traffic, allowing for an expansive pedestrian mall connecting the stores.
Over the years as the town has grown, most of those early shops – such as the small grocery stores – have moved with the expanding neighborhoods and become supermarkets. But Merchants Square, that idyllic shopping district envisioned by those early architects who were ahead of their time in this type of design, retains that friendly, quaint quality much copied today by other shopping districts springing up the country.
Located adjacent to Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, Merchants Square is an 18th- century-style retail village with over 40 shops and restaurants. Visitors and local residents alike regularly experience the square’s unique shopping, dining and special events offerings in a setting of unrivaled beauty.