- Historic Sites
The Town That Stopped The Clock
A noted newspaperman writes of his birthplace, a community in which time stood still—and then started backwards
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
Its beginning goes back to 1902 when William Archer Ruthcrfoord Goodwin came as a young minister to Bruton Parish Church. Like many old buildings, this one, dating back to 1715, had undergone many cycles of decay and reconstruction, each taking something away from its original beauty and charm. He set out to restore the church —only its interior had been affected—to what its colonial builders had intended it to he. The success of this undertaking led him to fascinated speculation on what a similar effort might accomplish with the Wren Building at the college, the George Wythe House, and certain other monuments still standing from the colonial past. Such scheming was obviously, however, just a lot of moonmist in an impoverished little backwater like Williamsburg, and it was filed away for reference in an indefinite future when Dr. Goodwill moved to Rochester in 1908.
In 1923, he came back to Williamsburg, this time as a teacher and director of a hoped for endowment fund for the college. What he saw shocked him. Not only had many of the older build ings he remembered fallen into further decay, but the war boom had put an appalling overlay of tawdry modern buildings and cheap housing developments upon what was left. Duke of Gloucester Street had been paved to let the army convoys through, and down its center marched a line of black telephone poles festooned with a tangle of wires. Greek restaurants, Chinese laundries, pool rooms, movie palaces, and Riling stations blatantly crowded the graying old homes and their mutilated gardens into shamed oblivion. The prosperity of the war years had, of course, passed on. But its legacy of trash and decadence was everywhere.
The canvas of Williamburg’s past glory, Dr. Goodwin once wrote of this period, “was coming to be little more than a thin fabric of dreams; the frame that held it together was falling to pieces. It was evident that unless something was done there would soon be left in Williamsburg nothing but memories of what was no longer there, and regret for the loss of the tokens and symbols of a glorious past.”
His immediate job as an official of the college was to find the money to restore its older buildings, but the larger dream that had come to him twenty years earlier surged through his mind. In 1984 he attended a Phi Beta Kappa dinner in New York, and there met for the first time John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Hopefully, he turned his persuasive talents on full force, but Mr. Rockefeller was not interested: the family already had a sufficiently long string of college and other benefactions to worry about. His only concession was a promise to visit Williamsburg sometime when he was down that way, to look over both the town and the college.
That same year, in what must have been a frenzy of desperation, Dr. Goodwin wrote a letter to Edsel Ford, son of Henry, neither of whom he had ever laid eyes upon. My dear Mr. Ford—Seriously, I want your father to buy Williamsburg, the old colonial capital of Virginia at a time when Virginia included the land on which the Ford factory is now located. It is the only colonial city left, until recently unchanged by time … Unfortunately, you and your father are at present the chief contributors to the destruction of this city. With the new concrete roads … garages and gas tanks are fast spoiling the whole appearance of the old city, and most of the cars which stop at the garages and gas tanks are Ford cars. …
There was never any answer to this letter, but its full text turned up not long afterward in the Detroit Free Press and other papers as a laughable example of how punchy some southerners can get over their history. “Dollars cannot bring back the glory of a day that is dead,” the Baltimore Sun editorialized. “The spectacle of the Old Dominion huckstering off her ancient capital to an outsider, in order to get a flivver imitation of a departed glory, would bring a blush of shame to the pale cheek of her mighty shades.”
One day in 1926, Mr. Rockefeller, his wife, and two of their sons did come to Williamsburg, on their way north from a Florida vacation. Dr. Goodwin, the president of William and Mary College, and a few other leading citizens gave them the most royal welcome of which they were capable. The result was that John D., Jr., contracted a quite mild and tentative case of restoration fever—only enough, in fact, to lay a few thousand dollars on the line for the work at the college and to promise rather indefinitely to think about the rest of it. He nodded his head noncommittally when the eager parson assured him that the whole of the old city could be bought for five to six million dollars. (The tab has since run to ten times that amount!)