- 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
But Goodwin seized his slender advantage like a missionary going after his first convert. In less than a month he sent an urgent telegram to New York saying that one of the choicest old properties in the city, the Ludwell-Paradise House, was about to come on the market; that if they moved quickly, it could be had for $8,000; that even if Mr. Rockefeller agreed to pick up this prize—quietly and confidentially—it would imply no commitment to proceed further until and unless he was ready to do so. The stratagem worked; Dr. Goodwin was given the money to buy the house in his own name, and Mr. Rockefeller, still in a state of comparative innocence, was hooked as the backer of one of the greatest historical projects of the age. (His full capitulation came a little later.) The critical date was December 7, 1926. For the next couple of years, Williamsburg seethed in a mounting frenzy of gossip, curiosity, and speculation. Here was Billy Goodwin padding around quietly as a cat, and with a smile as enigmatic as the Sphinx, buying up first this old house and then that. No one knew where his Midas touch would strike next, and they knew even less where he was getting the money. Every so often the bank’s deposits would bulge as he put an anonymous out-of-town draft or cashier’s check for $100,000 or so to his credit, and took title to his purchases in his own name and with his personal checks. To the poverty-stricken city this sudden flow of gold was like the Cinderella fable come true. Here were the Casey brothers, owners of a general store on the corner by the college and some other nondescript properties nearby, getting a stupendous $265,000 for their holdings. And here was old Uncle Jim Something-or-other (older Negroes seemed seldom to have last names) getting $5,000 for his derelict shanty next door to the Powder Horn. When Miss Emma Lou Barlow refused flatly to sell her crumbling old mansion on Duke of Gloucester Street because she had nowhere else to go, the good doctor offered not only to restore it and equip it with electric lights and plumbing, but to allow her to live out her life there at a rental of one dollar a year. Numerous life tenure agreements of this sort were made.
The suspense and curiosity about who was behind all this was becoming almost unbearable to the citizenry. So also to Dr. Goodwin was the task of keeping the secret and doing all the chores. Moreover, the time was at hand when architects and contractors would have to be brought in to start the actual work of restoration: he was already the owner of some thirty-seven properties for which he had paid out more than $2,000,000. So, after long consultations with Mr. Rockefeller and his advisers in New York, a mass meeting was called in the local high school building for the night of June 12, 1928. For the first time, Dr. Goodwin spelled out in detail the great plans he had for the restoration of the entire colonial city of Williamsburg and, good actor that he was, held his punch line for the end— ”… and the man whose great foresight and generosity has made this possible is … JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, JRI”
Thereafter things began to hum. A corporation was formed to handle the business details. Architects were secured, contracts let, historians, archaeologists, and antiquarians put to work delving into the minutiae of colonial life, habits, and appurtenances. The restored city “opened for business” in October, 1934, with Raleigh Tavern, the Capitol, the Palace, and a few lesser establishments on Duke of Gloucester Street as the main attractions, and with President Franklin D. Roosevelt heading the guest list.
The great transformation was not achieved, naturally, without some bad blood, and traces of animosity are still to be found among a few of the older families still living in Williamsburg. Much of this came through haggling over real-estate prices, and from simple resentment over an impious interruption in a cherished way of life. When a construction crew uprooted the Confederate monument on Palace Green and replanted it on an inconspicuous side street, a shrill cry of anguish arose from the ranks of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The next morning a wooden cross was stuck in the hole where the monument had been, inscribed “crucified on a cross of treachery.” Miss Annie Galt refused to part with her eighteenthcentury house during her lifetime, and showed her contempt for the Yankee schemers by replacing its mellow (but porous) old Cyprus shingle roof with one of glistening galvanized tin. The most conspicuous anachronism on Duke of Gloucester Street today, standing in the patrician shadow of the restored Capitol building, is the dowdy, two-story, post-McKinley frame house of Miss Cara Armistead, with a sign out front inviting “Overnight Guests.” Her last reputed offer from the restoration people was $50,000—10 no avail. Old “Miss Jennie”—Mrs. Virginia B. Haughwout—holds out even beyond the grave: she wrote into her will that none of her property was to be yielded up to the invaders. Her heirs to this day operate the only privately owned restaurant ( cum antiques, curios, and assorted tourist wares) outside of the commercial district, on Duke of Gloucester Street—fittingly known as Bull’s Head Tavern.