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Williamsburg Area Features

Williamsburg Then & Now

  By: Parke Rouse

They called it “the Pompeii of America,” the lost city refound. That was Williamsburg in 1928, after the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin announced to the world that the one-time capital of colonial Virginia would be restored by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

Reporters flocked to the tiny Tidewater town to see for themselves. They found a faded 18th-century village of mellow brick buildings, many covered with ancient ivy. Once prosperous and beautiful, it was being defaced in the Model-T era with filling stations, corrugated-iron workshops and cheap storefronts tacked onto Georgian facades.

Dr. Goodwin told the world that Rockefeller would return the 18th-century part of town to its appearance in the days when George Washington and Thomas Jefferson trod its streets. Those were the years from 1699 to 1780, when lawmakers gathered annually to make laws in the Capitol, at one end of mile-long Duke of Gloucester Street. At the other end sat the College of William and Mary, which in 1693 had become America’s second college, after Harvard.

Today, Williamsburg is a world-class center of architecture, scholarship and the arts. More than a million visitors savor its charms each year.

To Dr. Goodwin, one-time rector of Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church and fundraiser for the college, persuading Mr. Rockefeller to restore the town was the triumph of a lifetime. He’d tried John Pierpont Morgan and Henry Ford earlier, and then in 1926 he turned to Rockefeller, then the youthful only son of the millionaire oilman who founded Standard Oil – now Exxon – and other firms.

At Dr. Goodwin’s invitation, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Abby drove up from Hampton, Virginia with three of their sons and toured the decrepit town. After Rockefeller had returned to Williamsburg later that year for a William and Mary function, the persuasive Goodwin obtained his tentative approval to undertake limited restoration work.

From that quiet beginning, the project expanded to cover an area a mile long and almost as wide, involving hundreds of houses and shops built before the American Revolution. Many were once the homes of such patriots as Peyton Randolph, George Wythe, St. George Tucker and John Tyler.

Perhaps the most important structures were the splendid public buildings built of handmade brick after 1699, when Williamsburg replaced Jamestown as Virginia’s capital. Chief among these were the Capitol of 1704 and the Governor’s Palace of 1712. Although these had burned, they were rebuilt by the restoration along with the famous Raleigh Tavern and many other hostelries which had hosted burgesses like Patrick Henry, Edmund Pendleton, and George Mason when they had come to Williamsburg for the annual lawmaking sessions in colonial times.

Many of the early buildings still survived in 1928, though run-down and cruelly altered. Among these were the three original buildings of William and Mary - the Wren Building, the President’s House, the Indian School - and Bruton Parish Church. Still standing, too, were many of the original houses of tradesmen, lawyers, physicians and shopkeepers.

But Williamsburg tourism wasn’t Rockefeller’s main objective in the restoration. He and Dr. Goodwin saw the town as a means of teaching Americans what their country stood for.  They saw the town as a backdrop for the story of Americans’ desire for freedom, their battle against odds and their adoption of a Constitution assuring opportunity for all.

To finance the project, Rockefeller gave more than $65 million. His sons and daughter later contributed additional funds. Today, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is supported by countless individuals, corporations and philanthropic funds. Many others are giving priceless furniture, paintings and 18th-century furnishings to enhance the exhibition buildings and Colonial Williamsburg’s in-town DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. Happily, the miracle of reborn Williamsburg continues to attract not only tourists, but also students to William and Mary, visiting artists and scholars, nationwide scholarly gatherings, and occasional visits by foreign heads of state.

In recent years, Williamsburg has become a town of many museums. Colonial Williamsburg offers not only its 30-odd exhibition buildings, but also, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection, the Bassett Hall residence of the Rockefellers, the Winthrop Rockefeller Archaeological Museum at Carter’s Grove and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. William and Mary also operates its Muscarelle Museum of Art, touching all periods.

Williamsburg’s resounding success has encouraged restorations and information centers at Jamestown and Yorktown, linked with Williamsburg by the Colonial Parkway. It also has spawned many attractive residential areas such as Queen’s Lake near the York River, Kingsmill Estates on the James and award-winning Ford’s Colony. It has attracted the highly successful Busch Gardens, a European-style theme park near town.

Altogether, Dr. Goodwin’s dream of Williamsburg has changed the face of Virginia forever.


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