Colonial Williamsburg

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Williamsburg Historic District/Williamsburg Historical Triangle
Colonial Williamsburg (3205781804).jpg
View of the reconstructed Raleigh Tavern
on Duke of Gloucester Street
Colonial Williamsburg is located in Virginia
Colonial Williamsburg
Location Bounded by Francis, Waller, Nicholson, N. England, Lafayette, and Nassau Sts., Williamsburg, Virginia
Coordinates 37°15′45″N 76°41′59″W / 37.26250°N 76.69972°W / 37.26250; -76.69972Coordinates: 37°15′45″N 76°41′59″W / 37.26250°N 76.69972°W / 37.26250; -76.69972
Area 173 acres (70 ha)
Built 1699
Architectural style Georgian
Governing body Private
NRHP Reference #

66000925 [1]

VLR # 137-0050
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966
Designated NHLD October 9, 1960
Designated VLR September 9, 1969[3]

Colonial Williamsburg is a living-history museum and private foundation representing the historic district of the city of Williamsburg, Virginia, USA. The 301-acre (122 ha) Historic Area includes buildings dating from 1699 to 1780 (during which the city was the capital of Colonial Virginia), as well as Colonial Revival and more recent reconstructions. The Historic Area is an interpretation of a Colonial American city, with exhibits including dozens of authentic or re-created buildings related to colonial and American Revolutionary War history.

Early in the 20th century, the restoration and re-creation of Colonial Williamsburg was championed by W. A. R. Goodwin and the patriarch of the Rockefeller family, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., along with his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, to celebrate the patriots and the early history of the United States. It became one of the largest such projects in the nation. Today it is a major tourist attraction for the Williamsburg area, and is part of the Historic Triangle of Virginia area, which includes Jamestown and Yorktown, linked by the Colonial Parkway. The site has been used for conferences by world leaders and heads of state, including U.S. Presidents.

Rather than an effort only to preserve antiquity, the combination of restoration and re-creation of the entire colonial town attempts to re-create the atmosphere and the ideals of 18th-century American people and revolutionary leaders. The motto of Colonial Williamsburg is "That the future may learn from the past". Interpreters work and dress as they did in the era, using colonial grammar and diction (although not colonial accents).[4] Prominent buildings include the Raleigh Tavern, the Capitol, the Governor's Palace (all reconstructed), as well as the Courthouse and Bruton Parish Church (original). The Historic area is located immediately east of The College of William & Mary.


The Governor's Palace, reconstructed in the 1930s.

Colonial Williamsburg is a combination of a historical landmark and a living history museum. The core of Colonial Williamsburg, known as the "Historic Area", is located along Duke of Gloucester Street and the Palace Green that extends north perpendicular from it. This area is largely flat, with ravines and streams branching off on the periphery. Duke of Gloucester Street and several others are closed to motorized vehicles, in favor of pedestrians and animal-drawn vehicles.

Surviving colonial structures have been restored to estimates of 18th-century appearance, with traces of later buildings and improvements removed. Many of the missing Colonial structures were reconstructed on their original sites beginning in the 1930s. Animals, gardens, and dependency structures (such as kitchens, smokehouses, and privies) add to the environment. Most buildings and gardens are open for tourists, with the exception of buildings serving as residences for Colonial Williamsburg employees.[5]

Key landmarks include the Capitol, the Governor's Palace, the Magazine (used to store weapons and gunpowder for the militia), Bruton Parish Church, and the Raleigh Tavern.

Several taverns that have been restored or reconstructed are open as restaurants or inns. Other buildings include craftsmen's workshops for period trades, including a printing shop, blacksmith, cooper, cabinetmaker, gunsmith, wigmaker, and silversmith. Still others are merchants' stores selling various goods. Numerous houses are present; some, such as the Peyton Randolph House and the Wythe House are open as museums, while others are used as housing for employees.

The operations of Colonial Williamsburg extend outside the Historic Area. On the western end of Duke of Gloucester street is Merchants Square, a Colonial Revival commercial area that is now a historic district in its own right. Nearby are the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, both operated by Colonial Williamsburg as part of their curatorial efforts. Locals, students, and employees frequently call Colonial Williamsburg "CW".

History of Williamsburg[edit]

The "Frenchman's Map" showing Williamsburg in 1782; the map was a key piece of evidence in the restoration project

The statehouse (capitol building) in Jamestown, Virginia burned on October 20, 1698. The legislators found themselves meeting at Middle Plantation. In 1699, in a meeting held by the colonists, a group of students from The College of William & Mary submitted a proposal to move the capital to Middle Plantation, to escape malaria and mosquitoes that plagued the Jamestown Island site. The capital of the Virginia Colony was relocated to Middle Plantation.[6]

Middle Plantation was renamed "Williamsburg" by Royal Governor Francis Nicholson, proponent of the change, in honor of King William III of England. The new site was described by Nicholson as a place where "clear and crystal springs burst from the champagne soil" and was seen as a vision of future utopia. He had the city surveyed and a plan laid out by Theodorick Bland taking into consideration the fine brick College Building and Bruton Parish Church. The main street was named Duke of Gloucester after the eldest son of Queen Anne.[7]

For most of the 18th century, Williamsburg was the center of government, education and culture in the Colony of Virginia. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Monroe, James Madison, George Wythe, Peyton Randolph, and others molded democracy in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States here. During the American Revolutionary War, in 1780, the capital of Virginia was moved to Richmond, about 55 miles (90 km) west, to be more distant from British attack, where it remains today.[8]

History of Colonial Williamsburg[edit]

Restored Courthouse

With the seat of government removed, the colonial section of Williamsburg was neglected as the modern town was built around it. By the early 20th century, many older structures were in poor condition, and were no longer in use. The site on high ground and away from waterways was not reached by the early railroads, whose construction began in the 1830s, and only was reached by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway through the area in 1881.

Williamsburg relied on three institutions for jobs for its people: The College of William & Mary, the Courthouse, and the Eastern Lunatic Asylum (now Eastern State Hospital),;[9] it was said that the "500 Crazies" of the asylum supported the "500 Lazies" of the College and town.[9] Colonial-era buildings were neglected in the wake of the Civil War, which had a much larger presence in the minds of the townsfolk.

Dr. Goodwin and the Rockefellers[edit]

Print of the Bodleian Plate, a mid-18th-century engraving plate depicting several major buildings from Williamsburg, used to reconstruct the Capitol, Governor's Palace, and to restore the Wren Building.

The Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin became rector of Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church in 1903. The energetic 34-year old native of Nelson County was soon leading a successful campaign to restore the historic church building, which had been built beginning in 1711. He completed the church restoration in time for the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Anglican (Episcopal) Church in Virginia in 1907.

Goodwin was transferred by the Church, and worked in upstate New York until his return in 1923 to work at William & Mary. What he saw in further deterioration of colonial-era buildings both saddened and inspired him. In 1924, fearing that the many other historic buildings in the area would be destroyed as time went on, he started a movement to preserve the buildings in the historic section of the town. After working for several years to interest potential individuals or organizations to assist with funding, Goodwin drew the interest (and major financial commitment) of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the wealthy son of the founder of Standard Oil. Rockefeller's wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was also to play an active role.

Concerned that prices might rise if their intentions were known, Rockefeller and Goodwin kept their plans a secret, quietly buying properties. Williamsburg attorney Vernon M. Geddy, Sr. was taken into Goodwin's confidence in his role as Rockefeller's silent partner and did much of the title research and legal work related as properties in what was to become the restored area were acquired for the project. Geddy later drafted the Virginia corporate papers for the project, filed them with the Virginia State Corporation Commission, and served briefly as the first President of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.[10] That much property suddenly changing hands was noticeable, and after eighteen months of increasingly nervous rumors, Goodwin and Rockefeller finally revealed their plans at two town meetings on June 11 and 12, 1928.[11]

Some townspeople had qualms. Major S. D. Freeman said, "We will reap dollars, but will we own our town? Will you not be in the position of a butterfly pinned to a card in a glass cabinet, or like a mummy unearthed in the tomb of Tutankhamun?" [11]

Restoration and reconstruction[edit]

Capitol Building after its reconstruction, taken in the mid-20th century

Re-creation and restoration started on November 27, 1926. Since then, Colonial Williamsburg has been nearly completely re-created. It features shops, taverns and open-air markets in the colonial style.

The first lead architect in the project was William Graves Perry of and Perry, Shaw & Hepburn, with Arthur Shurcliff as the chief landscape architect. Upon consultation by Perry with Fiske Kimball, additional architects were brought in to serve as an Advisory Committee on Architecture.

During the restoration, the project demolished 720 buildings that postdated 1790, many of which dated from the 19th century. Of the approximately 500 buildings now in the historic area, 88 are original.[12] The Governor's Palace and the Capitol building were among the significant colonial-era buildings that had not survived into the 20th century, and the structures were reconstructed at the original sites with the aid of period illustrations and written descriptions. The grounds and gardens were all reconstructed in the Colonial Revival style.[13] In the western side of the district, beginning in the 1930s, retail shops were grouped under the name Merchants Square.

One of the most prominent of the rebuilt structures is the Capitol, the 1930s re-creation of the 1705 building, designed by the architects Perry, Shaw & Hepburn. The new Capitol was dedicated with a ceremonial meeting of the Virginia General Assembly on February 24, 1934.[14] As a tradition in Virginia, since 1934, Virginia's state legislators have reassembled for a day every other year in the Capitol building at the east end of Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area.[6]

Outlying landscapes and viewsheds[edit]

Entrance to the tunnel of the Colonial Parkway, which runs beneath the Historic Area linking it with Jamestown and Yorktown.

Beginning in the earliest periods of the Restoration, Colonial Williamsburg acquired acreage in Williamsburg and the two counties which adjoin it, notably to the north and east of the Historic District. One of the major considerations was a desire to preserve natural views and facilitate the effort to allow a visitor to experience as much of the late 18th-century experience as possible with regard to the surrounding environment. This was described as a "rural, wooded sense of arrival" along corridors to the foundation's Historic Area.[15] In announcing a conservation easement in 2006, CW Chairman Colin G. Campbell stated: "This view shed helps to set the stage for visitors in their journey from modern day life into the 18th-century setting. At the same time, this preserves the natural environment around Queen's Creek and protects a significant archaeological site. It is a tangible and important example of how the Foundation is protecting the vital greenbelt surrounding Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area for future generations." [16]

The entrance roadways to the Historic Area were planned with great care. The Colonial Parkway was planned and is maintained to reduce modern intrusions.

Near the principal planned roadway approach to Colonial Williamsburg, similar design priorities were employed for the relocated U.S. Route 60 near the intersection of Bypass Road and North Henry Street. Prior to the restoration, U.S. Route 60 ran right down Duke of Gloucester Street through town. To shift the traffic away from the Historic Area, Bypass Road was planned and built through farmland and woods about a mile north of town. Shortly thereafter, when Route 143 was built as the Merrimack Trail (originally designated State Route 168) in the 1930s, the protected vista was extended along Route 132 in York County to the new road, and two new bridges were built across Queen's Creek.

About 30 years later, when Interstate 64 was planned and built in the 1960s and early 1970s, from the designated "Colonial Williamsburg" exit, the additional land along Merrimack Trail to Route 132 was similarly protected from development. Today, visitors encounter no commercial properties before they reach the Visitor's Center.

Not only highway travel was considered. Although Williamsburg's brick Chesapeake and Ohio Railway passenger station was less than 20 years old and one of the newer along the rail line, it was replaced with a larger new one in Colonial style which was located just out of sight and within walking distance of the Historic Area.

Further afield was Carter's Grove Plantation. It was begun by a grandson of Royal Governor Robert "King" Carter. For over 200 years, it had gone through a succession of owners and modifications. In the 1960s after the death of its last resident, Ms. Molly McRae, Carter's Grove Plantation came under the control of the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave it to Colonial Williamsburg as a gift. It was operated until 2003 as a satellite facility of Colonial Williamsburg, with several important programs.


Main article: Kingsmill

Between Carter's Grove and the Historic District was the largely-vacant Kingsmill tract, as well as a small military outpost of Fort Eustis known as Camp Wallace. In the mid-1960s, CW owned land that extended all the way from the Historic District to Skiffe's Creek, at the edge of Newport News near Lee Hall. Distant from the Historic Area and not along the carefully protected sight paths, it was developed in the early 1970s, under CW Chairman Winthrop Rockefeller.

Rockefeller, a son of Abby and John D. Rockeller Jr., was a frequent visitor and particularly fond of Carter's Grove in the late 1960s. He became aware of some expansion plans elsewhere on the Peninsula of his St. Louis-based neighbor, August Anheuser Busch, Jr., head of Anheuser-Busch. By the time Rockefeller and Busch completed their discussions, the biggest changes in the Williamsburg area were underway since the Restoration began 40 years earlier. Among the goals were to complement Colonial Williamsburg attractions and enhance the local economy.

The large tract consisting primarily of the Kingsmill land was sold by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to Anheuser-Busch for planned development. The Anheuser-Busch investment included building a large brewery, the Busch Gardens Williamsburg theme park, the Kingsmill planned resort community, and McLaws Circle, an office park. AB and related entities from that development plan comprise the area's largest employment base, surpassing both Colonial Williamsburg and the local military bases.

Late 20th century[edit]

Colonial Williamsburg has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Virginia. With its historic significance in democracy, it and the surrounding area have been the site of many summit meetings of world leaders, notably the first World Economic Conference in 1983. Colonial Williamsburg has also hosted visiting royalty from several nations, including King Hussein of Jordan and Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Queen Elizabeth II has paid two royal visits to Williamsburg, most recently in May 2007 during the 400th anniversary of the founding of the nearby Jamestown Settlement.

The popular American Girl character, Felicity Merriman, is from Colonial Williamsburg. She lives in 1774, the years preceding the American Revolution.

Colonial Williamsburg today[edit]

Reenactors explain the process of wig making and significance of wigs in Colonial life.
Several interpreters on Duke of Gloucester Street

Colonial Williamsburg is an open-air assemblage of buildings populated with historical reenactors whose job it is to explain and demonstrate aspects of daily life in the past. The reenactors (or interpreters) work, dress, and talk as they would have in colonial times. While there are many living history museums (such as Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts or Castell Henllys in the UK), Colonial Williamsburg is unusual for having been constructed from a living town whose inhabitants and post-Colonial-era buildings were removed.

Unlike other living history museums, however, anyone can walk through the historic district of Williamsburg free of charge at any hour of the day. Charges apply only to those visitors who wish to enter the historic buildings to see arts and crafts demonstrations during daylight hours, or attend scheduled outdoor performances such as the Revolutionary City programs.

The Visitor's Center near the Colonial Parkway features a short movie, Williamsburg: the Story of a Patriot, which debuted in 1957. Visitors may park at the Visitor's Center as automobiles are restricted from the restored area. Wheelchair-accessible shuttle bus service is provided to stops around the perimeter of the Historic District of Williamsburg, as well as Jamestown and Yorktown during the peak summer season.

The costumed interpreters have not always worn Colonial dress. As an experiment in anticipation of the Bicentennial, in summer 1973 the hostesses were dressed in special red, white, and blue polyester knit pantsuits. Visitors were confused and disappointed and the experiment was dropped at the end of summer.[17] For the Bicentennial, docents wore historical costume after all.

Many times there are reenactments by historical interpreters in period costumes representing Colonial Willamsburg as can be seen in these multiple videos. In addition to simple period reenactment, there are times where Colonial Williamsburg may have certain themes, including the founding of Williamsburg, occupation by British forces, or visits from Colonial leaders of the day, including General George Washington.

Grand Illumination[edit]

Traditional, Colonial-style Christmas decorations in Williamsburg

The Grand Illumination is an outdoor ceremony and mass celebration involving the simultaneous activation of thousands of Christmas lights held each year on the first Sunday of December. The ceremony was invented in 1935, based on a colonial (and English) tradition of placing lighted candles in the windows of homes and public buildings to celebrate a special event such as the winning of a war or the birthday of the reigning monarch. The Grand Illumination also has incorporated extravagant fireworks displays, based on the 18th-century practice of using fireworks to celebrate significant occasions.

Educational Outreach[edit]

Thomas Jefferson reenactment by actor Bill Barker at Colonial Williamsburg

In the 1990s Colonial Williamsburg implemented the Teaching Institute in Early American History, and Electronic Field Trips. Designed for elementary and middle/high school teachers, the Institute offers workshops for educators to meet with historians, character interpreters, and to prepare instructional materials for use in the classroom.[18] Electronic Field Trips are a series of multimedia classroom presentations available to schools. Each program is designed around a particular topic in history and includes a lesson plan as well as classroom and online activities. Monthly live broadcasts on local PBS stations allow participating classes to interact with historical interpreters via telephone or internet.[19]

In 2007 Colonial Williamsburg launched A mix of historical documents and user-generated content such as blogs, videos, and message boards, the site aims to prompt discussion about the roles, rights, and responsibilities of citizens in a democracy. Preservation of the Founding Fathers' ideals in light of recent world events is a special focus of the site.

CW has hired former NBC journalist Lloyd Dobyns to produce podcasts for the museum where he usually interviews various staff members about their particular specialty.[20]


Central to the Rockefeller vision of Williamsburg was the need for retailing, not only to generate money to pay for the upkeep of Williamsburg, but also to aid in educating visitors through affordable reproductions. The Williamsburg Reproductions items sold in the Craft House were inspired by or reproductions of items in the collections. Vendors such as Wedgwood, Charles Overly, Kittinger, Stickley Furniture, Martin Senour, Kirk Steiff Co., and Virginia Metalcrafters have made products licensed by Colonial Williamsburg.


A workshop seen on Duke of Gloucester street
Interior of Greenhow store. Only the tourists are out of time/place

Colonial Williamsburg is owned and operated as a living museum by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the non-profit entity endowed initially by the Rockefeller family and over the years by many others, notably Reader's Digest founders Lila and DeWitt Wallace.

The major goal of the Restoration was to re-create the physical colonial environment and to facilitate education about the origins of the idea of America, which was conceived during the decades before the American Revolution. In this environment, Colonial Williamsburg strives to tell the story of how diverse peoples, having different and sometimes conflicting ambitions, evolved into a society that valued liberty and equality.[21]

Mitchell Reiss, former president of Washington College, is the Foundation's current President and CEO. Thomas F. Farrell II is Chairman of the Board of Trustees. Dr. James Horn, author of A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America and Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake, is the Foundation's Vice President for Research and Historical Interpretation.


Attendance at Colonial Williamsburg peaked in 1985 at 1.1 million visitors.[22] After years of lowered attendance, it began to rebound somewhat with the Jamestown 2007 celebration and the Revolutionary City programs of live, interactive street theater between re-enactors and audience members, which began in 2006.

Since bottoming out in 2004, total attendance has climbed about 10 percent total over the last few years, according to a report in July 2008. During the most recent year, CW's hospitality revenue increase of 15 percent was much stronger than the ticket sale gain of 5 percent, reflecting how the hospitality money is not always coming from CW Historic Area tourists, according to an official.[23]

Financial challenges[edit]

A challenge for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has been operating deficits. Operating income comes from attendance, merchandising, and hospitality properties, as well as non-operating income resulting from investments of the endowments. Financially focused efforts in recent years have primarily focused on cost containment and stimulating attendance and hospitality revenues. The Foundation has also sold some property assets not essential to its core mission, including most of its formerly owned properties on nearby Peacock Hill, which has the local distinction of having formerly been home to Georgia O'Keeffe, Mayor Polly Stryker, and Dr. Donald W. Davis, founder of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Land divestment[edit]

Further information: Carter's Grove

In a front-page article in The New York Times on December 31, 2006, it was reported that the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, struggling because of dwindling attendance and lack of sufficient endowment funds for upkeep, would be offering the Carter's Grove mansion and grounds for sale to a private purchaser, possibly as soon as January 2007. The article stated that the dilemma of historic museums and houses is that there are too many of them, upkeep is too expensive, and fewer people are visiting them.[22] In 2003, as CW attendance and operating revenues continued to drop, Carter's Grove was closed to the public while its mission and role in CW's programs were redefined. Later that year, Hurricane Isabel rendered serious damage to Carter's Grove Country Road, which had linked the estate directly to the Historic Area, a distance of 8 miles (13 km), bypassing commercial and public roadways. In an efficiency move, Colonial Williamsburg shifted some of the interpretive programs to locations contiguous to the Historic Area in Williamsburg. The foundation announced in late 2006 that it would be offered for sale, under specific restrictive conditions. In December 2007, the Georgian-style mansion and 476 acres (193 ha) were acquired for $15.3 million by CNET founder Halsey Minor, whose announced plans to use the property as a private residence and a center for a thoroughbred horse breeding program. A conservation easement on the mansion and 400 of the 476 acres (193 ha) is co-held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.[24][25] The easement protects and preserves the mansion, the James River viewshed and the archaeological sites on the property.[26] While some local residents lamented CW's decision to sell Carter's Grove, others stated relief that it would remain largely intact, no small matter in one of the fastest developing counties in Virginia.[25] In 2011, Halsey Minor stop making payments, and was foreclosed upon by CW after a lengthy legal battle and some deterioration of the house and grounds. As of 2013, CW is again attempting to sell off Carter's Grove.

In addition to the large sale of surplus land of the old Kingsmill plantation to Anheuser Busch in the 1970s, and the more recent sale of Carter's Grove, the Foundation has also sold several outlying tracts of land not considered fundamental to its mission.

One of these is a 360-acre (150 ha) tract along historic Quarterpath Road north of State Route 199 and south of U.S. Route 60 east of the Historic Area. In 2005, it was the City of Williamsburg's largest undeveloped tract under single ownership."[27] Observers have noted that, while most of the Quarterpath land will be developed, the previously vacant land will include park and recreational facilities, and Redoubt Park, dedicated to preserving some of the battlegrounds from the Battle of Williamsburg which occurred on May 5, 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign of the American Civil War.[28]

A portion of the 437-acre (177 ha) Carr's Hill Tract in York County, north and west of Bypass Road and State Route 132, was also sold. Developments thereon were restricted under the terms of sale so as to not negatively impact the vista available to motorists approaching Colonial Williamsburg. In February, 2007, a developer announced that 313 homes were planned to be built on 65 acres (26 ha) of the historic tract's 437 acres (177 ha). CW had earlier announced that it had donated three conservation easements to the Williamsburg Land Conservancy on 230 acres (93 ha) of the Carr's Hill tract land west of Route 132 in York County.[16]


Colonial Williamsburg has its own dedicated bus service to locations around the Historic Area

The closest commercial airport is Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport 25–30 minutes driving distance away. Williamsburg is midway between two larger commercial airports, Richmond International Airport and Norfolk International Airport, each about an hour's distance away.

Amtrak offers a passenger rail service stop at Williamsburg, as does Greyhound and Carolina Trailways with intercity buses.

Williamsburg is adjacent to east-west Interstate 64 and the parallel U.S. Route 60 passes through the city. A third road, State Route 143, also extends east to Newport News and Hampton, ending at Fort Monroe. From Richmond, Interstate 295, and other points west, many visitors approach via State Route 5, a scenic byway which passes many of the James River Plantations, or from the south via State Route 10, State Route 31 and the Jamestown Ferry. The Virginia Capital Trail is available for bicycles and pedestrians along the Colonial Parkway and Virginia Route 5.

Williamsburg offers good non-automobile driving alternatives for visitors. The area has both a central intermodal transportation center and Williamsburg Area Transport (WAT), a public transit bus system which operates a network of local routes. The community's public bus system, has its central hub at the transportation center. Color-coded routes, with buses accessible to disabled persons, serve hotels and motels, restaurants, stores, and non-Colonial Williams attractions.

Colonial Williamsburg operates its own fleet of buses with stops close to attractions in the Historic Area, although no motor vehicles operate on Duke of Gloucester Street (to maintain the colonial-era atmosphere).

Criticism and controversy[edit]

The 1920s and '30s[edit]

Some residents of Williamsburg, including Major S. D. Freeman and Cara Armistead, questioned the 1928 transfer of public lands (as compared to private properties). In January, 1932, the large marble Confederate Civil War monument was removed from Palace Green, where it had stood since 1908, and relocated in the Cedar Grove Cemetery, on the outskirts of town. Some citizens, although supportive of the Colonial reconstruction, felt this was too much. The case went to court, and eventually the monument was relocated to a new site east of the then-new courthouse.[11] Today the memorial rests in Bicentennial Park, just outside the Historic Area.

Issues of "accuracy" and "authenticity"[edit]

Restroom signs at the visitor center paradoxically keep up the facade of going back in time while simultaneously purveying convenience to modern audiences.

The approach to restoration and preservation taken by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has long been subject to criticism. One of the Foundation’s own in-house publications concedes that “Colonial Williamsburg bears the burden of criticism that the restored town appears too neat and clean, too 'spick-and-span', and too manicured to be believable.”[13] Ada Louise Huxtable, an architecture critic, wrote in 1965: "Williamsburg is an extraordinary, conscientious and expensive exercise in historical playacting in which real and imitation treasures and modern copies are carelessly confused in everyone's mind. Partly because it is so well done, the end effect has been to devalue authenticity and denigrate the genuine heritage of less picturesque periods to which an era and a people gave life."[29]

In 1997, anthropologists Eric Gable and Richard Handler discussed Colonial Williamsburg as an attraction, which catered to America's upper/middle to high-level affluent socioeconomic classes. Their report mentions instances where some of Colonial Williamsburg's employees often straddle expectations of maintaining authenticity of the museum's programs while still in-authentically creating products to sell in the museum's gift shops.[30] An even harsher interpretation is that of University of Virginia Professor of Architectural History Richard Guy Wilson, author of Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont, who described Colonial Williamsburg as "a superb example of an American suburb of the 1930s, with its in-authentically tree-lined streets of Colonial Revival houses and segregated commerce."[31] All of these reproaches have led many critics to label Colonial Williamsburg and its Foundation a "Republican Disneyland."[32]

Among the answers to these criticisms is that “Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area is a compromise between historical authenticity and common sense, between brutal realism and gentle ambiance, between being a moment in time in the eighteenth century and being nearly three hundred years old.”[33] Critics assert that setting “historical authenticity” against “common sense” is a false dichotomy and that commercial and proprietary factors are what are really at issue. Of course archaeological and historical research is an ongoing process at Colonial Williamsburg, and as new information surfaces, reconsideration is often prompted and changes made accordingly.

At Appalachian State University a graduate level class is taught on the preservation and restoration of Colonial Williamsburg as part of its Public History program.

African Americans[edit]

Colonial Williamsburg has been criticized for neglecting the role of free African-Americans in Colonial life, in addition to those who were slaves. When it first opened in the 1930s, Colonial Williamsburg had segregated dormitories for its reenactors. African Americans filled historical roles as servants, rather than free people as in the present day. In a segregated state, Colonial Williamsburg allowed the entry of blacks, but Williamsburg-area hotels denied them accommodation, and state law forbade blacks from eating with whites in such public facilities as the restored taverns and from shopping in nearby stores.[1] In the 1950s, African Americans were only allowed to visit Colonial Williamsburg one day a week until after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 began dismantling segregation laws and practices.

Colonial Williamsburg offered some of the earlier public accommodations on an integrated basis.[citation needed] In the 1970s, in reaction to increasing scorn of its one-sided portrayal of colonial life, Colonial Williamsburg increased its number of African-American interpreters who played slaves. This was parodied by a skit that aired on Saturday Night Live, which showed a reenactor abusing his accuracy by being racist to employees.[34] In 1994 it added slave auctions and slave marriages; the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference later protested.[35] In 1981 Colonial Williamsburg added a program to explain slavery and its role in Colonial America, but this "Other Half Tour," which is composed by the Foundation's African American and Interpretation Programs Department (AAIP), provides a different form of historical interpretation than does its counterpart tour, "The Patriots' Tour," thus creating a marked dichotomy between how visitors are expected to interpret history at the museum.[36]

In recent years Colonial Williamsburg has expanded its portrayal of 18th-century African Americans to include free blacks as well as slaves. Gowan Pamphlet, a former slave who became a free landowner and Baptist minister, is among the historic figures featured in Colonial Williamsburg's current Revolutionary City program, along with Edith Cumbo, a free black woman, and a number of enslaved men and women who were part of the Williamsburg community during the revolutionary period. A re-created Great Hopes Plantation represents a middling plantation, not one owned by the wealthy, in which working-class farmers worked alongside their slaves. Their lives were more typical of colonial Virginians in general than the lives of the wealthier planters, their families and slaves.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13. 
  2. ^ "Colonial Williamsburg". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-06-27. 
  3. ^ "Virginia Landmarks Register". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 19 March 2013. 
  4. ^ Associated Press, "Next Williamsburg visit could include an 18th-century coffeehouse experience," Richmond Times-Dispatch, Nov. 10, 2009, Richmond, VA (
  5. ^ Kennicott, Philip, "Brewing new sense of Colonial relevance; Coffeehouse project is steeped in Williamsburg's shift to modern storytelling," The Washington Post, Nov. 19, 2009, Washington, D.C.
  6. ^ a b "Capitol," Colonial Williamsburg Web site (, Retrieved 8-3-2011.
  7. ^ John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg
  8. ^ "April dates in Virginia history." Virginia Historical Society. Retrieved on July 11, 2007.
  9. ^ a b "500 Lazies and 500 Crazies: Williamsburg Before the Restoration", Crossroads: American Studies, University of Virginia, Retrieved on September 6, 2010.
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b c Reactions: Congratulations and Controversy
  12. ^ Colihan, Jane (March 2003). "Williamsburg by Ear" American Heritage. Retrieved 7-29-2010.
  13. ^ a b Brinkley, Kent and Gordon W. Chappell (1996), The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: Williamsburg, Virginia; p. 3.
  14. ^ "Capitol," Colonial Williamsburg Web site ( Retrieved 8-3-2011.
  15. ^ CW Easement to Preserve 230 Acre Tract: The Williamsburg Land Conservancy Deal Removes Some Development Rights to Carr's Hill.
  16. ^ a b News Releases
  17. ^ Dressing for the Occasion
  18. ^ Teacher Institute in Early American History
  19. ^ Electronic Field Trips
  20. ^ Colonial Williamsburg podcasts with Lloyd Dobyns
  21. ^ That the future may learn from the past
  22. ^ a b Tracie Rozhon, "Homes Sell, and History Goes Private", The New York Times, Sunday, December 31, 2006, Section 1, page 1.
  23. ^ Can history beat failing economy? -
  24. ^ Carter's Grove mansion sells for $15.3 million | |
  25. ^ a b Carter's Grove sold for $15.3 million -
  26. ^ Conservation easement protection
  27. ^ 3 Quarter time -
  28. ^
  29. ^ Metropolis Magazine - Jan 1998
  30. ^ Handler, Richard and Eric Gable. The New History in an Old Museum. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1997, 93-95.
  31. ^ The Society of Architectural Historians
  32. ^ Van West, Carroll and Mary Hoffschwelle. “’Slumbering on Its Old Foundations’: Interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg.” South Atlantic Quarterly 83 (September 1984): 157-159.
  33. ^ Brinkley and Chappell (1996), pg 4.
  34. ^ "Colonial Williamsburg". Saturday Night Live - Season 32, Episode 3 - 10/21/06. NBC. Retrieved 18 August 2013. 
  35. ^ Tamara Jones, “Living History or Undying Racism?” Washington Post, October 11, 1994.
  36. ^ Handler and Gable, 59.
  37. ^ Great Hopes Plantation at Colonial Williamsburg

Further reading[edit]

  • Carson, Cary and Lounsbury, Carl R. The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
  • Coffman, Suzanne E. and Olmert, Michael, Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia 2000. ISBN 0-87935-184-5
  • Gonzales, Donald J., Chronicled by. The Rockefellers at Williamsburg: Backstage with the Founders, Restorers and World-Renowned Guests. McLean, Virginia: EPM Publications, Inc., 1991.
  • Richard Handler and Eric Gable, The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina 1997. ISBN 0-8223-1974-8
  • Huxtable, Ada Louise, The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, The New Press, New York 1997. ISBN 1-56584-055-0
  • Scott Magelssen, Living History Museums: Undoing History Through Performance, Scarecrow Press, 2007. ISBN 0-8108-5865-7

External links[edit]

(an article from Colonial Williamsburg Journal, 2004)