- Historic Sites
“My Gawd, They’ve Sold the Town”
How the happy combination of a millionaire and, a parson gave us Colonial Williamsburg, a place of surpassing loveliness—and a continuing reminder of what a truly bold enterprise our Revolution was
August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
The first crucial meeting between the impassioned parson and the meticulous philanthropist ended in a draw. Dr. Goodwin had transformed Williamsburg in words and Mr. Rockefeller had listened him out.
Several years later Rockefeller was to explain just why he finally decided to underwrite Goodwin’s grandiose dream. It “offered an opportunity,” he said, “to restore a complete area entirely free from alien and inharmonious surroundings, as well as to preserve the beauty and charm of the old buildings and gardens of the city, and its historic significance.” The explanation is revealing. To Rockefeller, Williamsburg transformed was not primarily history enshrined. For him, the future Colonial Williamsburg was to be, above all else, a work of art and an idyllic place, a work in which he could take an active part, and he would; an eighteenth-century idyll which he could enjoy—as he would during his lengthy twice-yearly visits to Williamsburg transformed.
Rockefeller came to this decision in a few fairly rapid stages. On November 27, 1926, he secretly authorized Goodwin to spend a modest sum of Rockefeller money to prepare plans for restoring Williamsburg’s existing historic buildings. Since he insisted that restoration funds were not to be expected, stage one was a far cry from Goodwin’s dream of a complete transformation. Nevertheless, November 27, 1926, has always been regarded as the official birthday of Colonial Williamsburg, and rightly so. The Reverend Goodwin had hooked Leviathan and he knew it. A few days after Rockefeller’s visit, he wrote the philanthropist in New York that a fine brick colonial building had just come on the market in Williamsburg. Should Goodwin buy it for him? On December 7 Rockefeller wired his approval, signing the cable “David’s Father” to disguise his identity from potential snoops. Rockefeller was determined that in all Goodwin’s Williamsburg dealings his own name must remain a secret.
In May, 1927, Rockefeller took a still more decisive step. He authorized Goodwin to begin buying up Williamsburg property. By November he was ready to go the whole hog. “It is my desire and purpose,” he wrote to his chief factotum, Colonel Arthur Woods, “to carry out this enterprise completely and entirely.… to restore Williamsburg, so far as it may be possible, to what it was in colonial days. ” This would mean not only restoration but reconstruction as well, not to mention demolition of all that was noncolonial.
The immediate result of Rockefeller’s buy order was the greatest excitement Williamsburg had known since French troops had wintered there after the Battle of Yorktown. For one thing the town was bursting with curiosity. Who on earth was giving Parson Goodwin millions to buy up not only colonial homes but also vacant lots, gas stations, pool rooms, and that well-known Williamsburg resort, “The Stumble Inn”? Everybody guessed but nobody guessed correctly. Most favored Henry Ford, unaware that he had turned down Goodwin’s proposal back in 1924. The town was also bursting with greed. Goodwin’s partner may have been anonymous, but nothing could disguise the size of his purse or his manifest indifference to haggling. Prices skyrocketed. Reporters began flocking to the town; rumors sprouted like mushrooms. That restoration of some kind was in the works everybody knew; William Goodwin was restoration-crazy. Some of his neighbors thought he was just plain crazy and had infected somebody else. The parson and his partner, they believed, were going to make them all wear knee breeches and compel their wives and daughters to wear hoop skirts.
During the spring of 1928 the moment of truth finally came to the overheated town. Having bought up many of the private lots, Goodwin “and associates” now had to buy certain public properties essential to the town’s transformation, including the Market Square, the Palace Green, and the colonial Court House. By law this required both the townspeople’s approval and the divulgence of the would-be purchaser’s name. On the evening of June 12, two hundred Williamsburg residents jammed the high school auditorium (it was on the site of the Governor’s Palace) to find out at long last just what was going on and just who was behind it all. Before a hushed audience, the Reverend Goodwin rose and outlined the plans for the town. From his words on that occasion it is clear that he understood his benefactor’s aesthetic bent. He bid his fellow townspeople to “return thanks that this place has been chosen as a shrine of history and beauty. ” Only then did he announce that the shrine builder was none other than John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the world’s most bountiful philanthropist. The audience burst into applause, voted overwhelmingly to sell off the public squares, and unanimously expressed their appreciation of Rockefeller’s plan to turn their seedy town into a beautiful shrine.
A humorist celebrated the news in the local paper: