“My Gawd, They’ve Sold the Town”


In 1780 the “business” was finished forever when the revolutionary legislature, encouraged by Governor Jefferson, moved the government of Virginia to Richmond, leaving a city that had lived off government with almost nothing at all to live off. The Governor’s Palace ceased at once to be an official residence and took note of the disgrace by promptly burning to the ground in 1781. Ten years later the capitol, home of the late House of Burgesses, was described as “a capacious Building of Brick, now crumbling to Pieces from Negligence. The Houses around it are mostly uninhabited and present a melancholy Picture. ” All the town had left, noted an anonymous wit, were “the memory of its ancient importance” and streets “handsomely paved with grass.”

For 140 years after the government’s removal, Williamsburg could scarcely be said to have a history at all. It simply decayed, slowly, gently, and with a certain grace. Shutters sagged, shingles slid down, and termites gnawed at colonial underpinnings. Most people in Williamsburg, however, were too poor to demolish old buildings for the sake of modern improvement. Fires did damage, but not Progress, which left the old town remarkably undisturbed. The population of the original 220 acres was probably the same in 1900 as it had been in 1776. Williamsburg, wrote young Mary Gait, member of a notable Williamsburg family and a student at the Virginia Female Institute, is “a place as yet but scarcely touched by the desecrating fingers of modern avarice.”

That was in 1903, but in 1926 the Reverend Goodwin had every reason to stand by the roadside to intercept the semibillionaire before he laid unaided eyes on the town. Progress, in the form of World War I prosperity and the Model T, had finally caught up with old Williamsburg and had turned it at once into a mess. In 1922, broad Duke of Gloucester Street, the town’s pride for two centuries, had been made into a third-rate divided highway, with unkempt grass and telephone poles running down its middle. Gasoline pumps stood on the sidewalks, auto repair shops and garages sprang up like weeds between 150-year-old buildings, one of which was now employed in “vulcanizing” and “quick tire changing.” The southern half of Market Square, once a broad, refreshing green, was now cluttered with some thirty buildings, including a tacky supermarket, two banks, and a pigsty. Across from the square stood a corrugated iron garage that invited drivers to “Toot-an-Kum-in,” while the benches at the nearby colonial Court House invited pedestrians to “rest here in a Garner suit.” Once-genteel Williamsburg was in the iron grip of the hucksters. As the Reverend Goodwin’s son Rutherford was to put it: “In a few short Years it had ceased to be an isolated and pleasingly decaying colonial City. Outwardly, it had become a Highway Town in which the Ancient and Modern were mingled in an Effect of peculiar Aggravation.”

The outward slatternliness posed no small problem for the Reverend Goodwin, especially so since the semibillionaire visitor to the town was John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a beauty-loving man, a meticulous man, a collector of fine Chinese porcelain. What possible appeal could run-down Williamsburg hold for the great philanthropist? Recently Rockefeller had restored Rheims Cathedral and the Palace of Versailles, both damaged in the Great War. Between such monuments of Western art and the sagging wooden survivors of an eighteenth-century provincial town there seemed scarcely a point in common. Williamsburg was rich in history, but Mr. Rockefeller had never shown much interest in political history, or in patriotic causes for that matter. Politics, for the Rockefeller family, had spelled nothing but trouble for years; their natural inclination was to shun it.

Nevertheless, when the philanthropist and his family were flagged down by the Reverend Goodwin (who had invited them to visit Williamsburg two years earlier), they dutifully let themselves be led up and down the scraggly streets of the town listening to the ebullient Goodwin conjure up what he liked to call “the spirit of days of long ago that haunts and hallows the ancient city.” Goodwin could point out, for example, that the shabby, vacant spaces dotting the town like junkyards were not mere signs of poverty but the result of a wise 1699 law which decreed that every house in the capital-to-be must be built on a half-acre plot. Williamsburg was a spacious town by virtue of what today we would call a zoning law. The Reverend could also point out to his guests that the rotting little hutches cluttering so many back yards once formed the service buildings—kitchen, smokehouse, dairy, laundry—whose detachment from the main house was regarded by colonial Virginians as the only civilized way to live. It leaves the house “more cool and Sweet,” as a Virginian had put it in 1705. Goodwin could point out, too, that the original town plan of Williamsburg, drawn up by Governor Francis Nicholson, remained intact after 226 years, every street and square in the original town exactly where it always had been. True, the Governor’s Palace was gone, the Raleigh Tavern had burned down in 1859, and the capitol had crumbled away to its bare foundations. Moreover, though the Reverend Goodwin could point out eighty-eight colonial buildings still more or less upright, Mr. Rockefeller could see for himself that five hundred post-colonial buildings formed a yet more conspicuous array.