- 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
Colonial Williamsburg, as everybody knows, is the monumental historic re-creation of the onetime capital of colonial Virginia, the place where young Thomas Jefferson listened at the door of the House of Burgesses while Patrick Henry denounced the Stamp Act, the place where Virginia patriots took giant strides toward revolution at an inn called the Raleigh Tavern, the place where George Washington mustered America’s multinational forces for the final battle at Yorktown, eleven miles to the southeast.
Yet when I first set eyes on Colonial Williamsburg not many months ago, what struck me was not the enchantment of Williamsburg’s glorious past nor the sense of being transported two centuries back in time. What struck me with astonishing force on a late afternoon in early spring was the sheer loveliness of the re-created capital city. It was William Penn’s dream of Philadelphia come true: “a greene country towne”; a neat and decorous community made green by woods, glades, and pastures that come right up to the sharp edge of town, by the extraordinarily spacious gardens behind every gabled house, by fine public squares and fine tree-lined streets. All of this bewitching greenness was set off by regular rows of houses, by whitewashed fences, straight little footpaths, and one broad thoroughfare, Duke of Gloucester Street, named in 1699 in honor of the son of the then future Queen Anne.
I had walked around entranced for nearly two hours when, like the stern voice of conscience, an unwelcome thought intruded. Perhaps it was prompted by the British flag flying atop the capitol. In any case it suddenly dawned on me that the wonderful re-creation was a most subversive re-creation indeed. It seemed to be rendering, at each pleasant turning, a quietly adverse judgment on the American Revolution, which officially, of course, it ardently celebrates. This well-bred loveliness, the green country town seemed to be saying, is what Americans recklessly cast away when they cut their ties to the British crown and set sail on the turbulent seas of republicanism. So subversive a historical judgment seemed especially worth investigating since it is not and never was the avowed judgment of anyone associated with the Williamsburg restoration.
It was emphatically not the view of the Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin as he stood on the eastern edge of pre-restoration Williamsburg on March 29, 1926, awaiting the arrival of a man worth half a billion dollars. It is safe to say that William Goodwin, rector of Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church (founded in 1674) was waiting by the roadside impatiently. He was a man so bursting with restless energy that when he talked to people he hopped from one foot to the other. Besides, the fifty-seven-year-old minister was in the grip of a passion and possessed by a vision. For years he had been in search of a philanthropic Croesus as passionately devoted to restoring old things as Goodwin had been since boyhood when he first read a book called Hidden Cities Restored . Goodwin wanted his Croesus, as yet undiscovered, to buy up the entire town of Williamsburg and transform it, lock, stock, and barrel, into the old colonial town of Williamsburg. He conceived the transformation as a living monument to the American Revolution, one that would, in his words, “tell of how patriotic spirits wrought here to erect an enduring spiritual temple to liberty.” Turning an entire town back 150 years was so utterly unprecedented that the most generous estimate of the cost would prove too low by a factor of twenty, or more specifically, the ratio between the estimated $5,000,000 and the $100,000,000-plus that Colonial Williamsburg would eventually cost.
What made Goodwin’s grandiose dream slightly less than impossible lay in the fact that eighteenth-century Williamsburg, like Washington, D.C., was an artificial city with no life but political life and no occupation save government, except for what tepid business flowed in from the College of William and Mary, founded in 1693, or seven years before the space adjacent to it was made the capital of Virginia by act of its General Assembly. By that act of June, 1699, a total of 220 acres east of the college were reserved for the future metropolis, and even in Williamsburg’s hectic heyday, 220 acres pretty much sufficed for a permanent population that never rose above eighteen hundred people inhabiting some three hundred houses.
Williamsburg’s floating population was another matter entirely. Twice a year when the General Court was in session (and with it. usually, the colonial legislature) a couple of thousand Virginians would descend on the city for business, gambling, and pleasure, including the most profligate spenders (and gamblers) in all of British North America, namely the Tidewater tobacco planters with their limitless credit in England, their hundred-thousand-acre estates, and their virtually complete control over the politics of Virginia. It was this semiannual invasion—known as “The Publick Times”—that supported little Williamsburg’s numerous taverns, its smart retail shops, its silversmiths, jewelers, milliners, and wigmakers, not to mention lawyers, actors, and dancing masters. “On these occasions,” wrote an English visitor in 1760, “there are balls and amusements; but as soon as the business is finished, they return to their plantations and the town is in a manner deserted.”
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.
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:
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.
Several years before its creator died in 1960, Colonial Williamsburg underwent a certain amount of change. The aged Rockefeller’s sons, John D. Rockefeller III and Winthrop, were far more politically minded than their almost utterly apolitical father. Through publications, celebrations, orientation lectures and films, they gradually reasserted the Goodwinesque side of Williamsburg, which is to say, Williamsburg as the scene of great events leading to a noble revolution. In recent years historical realism, firmly in the ascendancy, has made some alterations in Williamsburg’s physical aspect. The working blacksmith’s costume is appropriately grimy, there is an eighteenth-century brickyard, not very lovely, on the edge of town, and piles of hay in the fields. There is a somewhat rougher edge to the greens, the fences, the houses, and the paths than John D. Rockefeller, Jr., would have approved of.
Yet neither orientation films nor touches of realism can substantially alter Colonial Williamsburg or mend its split personality. Short of drastic and destructive renovation, Rockefeller’s lovely green country town will always whisper subversive thoughts into its visitors’ ears. How can it be otherwise in a place that celebrates a revolution yet enshrines in so masterly a fashion that spirit of order, decorum, and deference that that republican revolution destroyed. This is no petty contradiction but an important historical truth about the American Revolution: It was a revolt not only against British sovereignty but against the spirit of Williamsburg. Virginia’s rebels knew exactly what they were doing when they moved the government out of the town back in 1780.