- 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
Williamsburg was marked at birth with a split personality, being partly a historical re-creation and partly an aesthetic one. The two Williamsburgs even cropped up in official pronouncements. A 1933 guide, sounding like the Reverend Goodwin, said that Williamsburg transformed “will provide a shrine where great events of early American history and the lives of many of the men who made it may be visualized in their proper setting.” An official publication of 1934, on the other hand, described Colonial Williamsburg as a “memorial” that “would exemplify the various architectural and structural Types which had existed in Williamsburg .”
There were historic bridges between Williamsburg the re-creation and Williamsburg the work of art. For one thing, eighteenth-century travelers often attested to Williamsburg’s pleasing appearance, despite the fact that, as Lord Adam Gordon, a British colonel, pointed out in 1764, “scarce any of the topping People have Houses there of their own.” Duke of Gloucester Street, with its ninety-nine-foot width and its houses uniformly lined up—both established by law—was often described as “handsome.” The town, as a British visitor put it in 1769, was “neat and elegant.” The Chevalier D’Ancteville was favorably struck even by the modest frame houses of Williamsburg’s nontopping residents. “They are carefully built with taste and propriety,” he noted in 1781. The handsome wooden fences adorning every house plot in today’s Colonial Williamsburg reflect a 1705 statute requiring every owner to put up a fence around his property. That some residents erected fancy fences is suggested by a notice in the Virginia Gazette advertising in 1767 “all sorts of Chinese and Gothick PALING for gardens and summer houses.”
Mitigating the split, too, was the fact that the aesthetic ideal that so captivated John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was by no means alien to Williamsburg. It was the eighteenth-century ideal of decorum, symmetry, and elegance, of polished formality and deference to one’s betters. To what extent such eighteenth-century ideals, so conspicuous in upper-class Georgian England, pervaded a provincial middle-class town in faraway Virginia was a question to which Rockefeller and his aides preferred to give as affirmative an answer as possible. Therein lay the split between Williamsburg the historic re-creation and Williarnsburg the shrine of beauty.
Consider the rich ornamental gardens of Colonial Williarnsburg. There are one hundred of them among the town’s 150-odd major historic buildings. Each is a delightful variant on the formal schemes and devices employed by eighteenth-century English estate gardeners, with their topiary hedges, arbors, and rigidly geometrical arrangements. Struck by the sheer number as well as the charm of the gardens, I asked Colonial Williamsburg’s young chief of research, Gary Carson, just how well authenticated they were. He replied, with admirable candor, that some had no specific historic warrant. In 1766 Jefferson had allowed that the gardens of Annapolis, Maryland, “are more indifferent” than those of Williarnsburg. One Nichols Cresswell thought “some of their gardens [were] laid out with the greatest taste of any seen in America.” Beyond that there is not much else. What most Colonial Williamsburg residents grew on their half-acre lots were vegetables, not clipped hedges of box.
The present-day gardens of Williarnsburg, according to Carson, were transplanted, so to speak, from England, not by colonial Virginians but by a landscape architect of genius, Arthur Shurcliff. He had done so at the bidding of Mr. Rockefeller, who, at the very same time, was making sure that every colonial building restored and every colonial house reconstructed on its surviving colonial foundations—including the capital, the Governor’s Palace, and Raleigh Tavern—was as historically accurate as limitless millions could make it.
Yet here, too, Rockefeller revealed how fundamentally indifferent he was to the pastness of the past, admittedly an odd thing to say about the creator of Colonial Williarnsburg. It was at Rockefeller’s insistence that Colonial Williamsburg was maintained for years in a Toyland-like state of spit-and-polish, every house freshly painted, every grassy verge sharply clipped, every fence whitewashed and gleaming. During his twice-yearly sojourns at Bassett Hall, a fine colonial mansion on the edge of Williamsburg, Rockefeller would tour the town making lists of all the repairs needed since his previous visit five months before. To him, a tumble-down fence or a weedy garden were not desirable elements in a realistic reconstruction but flaws in his beloved and beautiful work of art.