Visitors from around the planet make Colonial Williamsburg their destination.
For many, it is a “bucket list” trip. Some families rank it right up there with a trip to Disneyland as a “must see” while their children are at home.
Yes, Thomas Jefferson walked these streets, as did so many other notables, before the capitol moved to Richmond in 1780.
Two major wars, economic depression in the late 19th Century, and the route of the new rail line all played their part in sending this little village into decline before 1900.
It was almost lost to us. Had it not been for John D. Rockefeller and his wife, Abby, and the secret efforts of a few associates, such as Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin; it could never have become the scene of living history it is today. The Rockefellers began buying up land in the late 1920s where the colonial town had been. Efforts were kept secret, all transactions handled by brokers, to avoid publicity in the early years. Enough old structures, and plans of old structures remained to renovate and re-build. The old Capitol building, Governor’s Palace, and Raleigh Tavern were among the hundreds of buildings rebuilt in the original effort.
Preservationists in the late 19th Century began a movement to protect and preserve the “historic triangle” of Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Jamestown for future generations to better understand our history.
They also had an eye to the economic value of tourism, and founded the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) in 1889.
In 1893 the group acquired 22 acres of land on Jamestown Island; where a ruined church tower c. 1647 was the only one of the original structures left standing from the era when Jamestown was the state capitol. At that time, a number of families still had homesteads and small farms on the island.
Efforts to lobby state legislators, and Governor Harry Flood Byrd, who took office as Governor of Virginia in 1925, were fruitful. Governor Byrd traced his family not only to original colonists such as Robert “King” Carter of Corotoman, and William Byrd II, who established Richmond; but also to Pocahantas, or Rebecca Rolfe as she was later known.
Gov. Byrd established the Conservation and Development Commission in 1926. He agreed with the preservationists who wanted to restore Virginia’s historic sites and make them destinations for tourists.
A National Historic Park, or “Colonial National Monument” was soon authorized by Congress and signed into law in 1930 by President Hoover. Plans for a road linking Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown was already under discussion. Although design of the Colonial Parkway began in 1931, the road wasn’t completed all the way to Jamestown until 1957.
The people of Williamsburg were finally informed about plans to create a “Colonial Williamsburg Foundation” in 1928.
Efforts were made to purchase as much property as possible over 301 acres. Over 700 structures, built after 1790, were demolished. Colonial era buildings, already lost, were rebuilt, and many still standing renovated. In all, over 80 original structures were renovated.
In addition, gardens, faithful to Colonial planting schemes, were designed and installed. Research into every aspect of everyday life in colonial era Williamsburg informed the smallest decisions from paint and upholstery choices in renovated structures, to fashion for the hired interpreters and menus in the new CW restaurants.
It was not authentically recreated, however, in many important ways. For example, the colonial institution of slavery remains a sore point. The reality is too brutal and upsetting to our modern sensibilities. A kinder, gentler, sanitized version of colonial life is portrayed at CW.
Not everyone was willing to sell out their property to the newly organized Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Bruton Parish, an historic, but still active congregation, still owns their property on Duke of Gloucester Street. Dr. Goodwin, whose idea it was to restore Williamsburg, served as Bruton Parish’s Rector from 1903 through the completion of its restoration in 1907. After a time serving a church in New York, Dr. Goodwin returned to Williamsburg in 1923. Seeing the deterioration which had occurred during his time away, he determined to head up a restoration effort of the remaining Colonial Era town.
Still, the Episcopalian Church has maintained ownership of the property and control of the church and church yard, despite Bruton Parish’s place of honor in the restored area. The Bowden-Armistead House, next door, also remains in private ownership. Built in the 1850’s on land previously owned by Bruton Parish, this home survived the Civil War. The family has so far refused to sell out to the CWF.
Likewise, the College of William and Mary retains ownership of its historic buildings. Although renovated, and adjacent to the restored area, the College remains separate from CW. Visitors wander freely onto the campus from DoG Street and are not charged to view the historic buildings.
Although this picturesque area of living history is only minutes from our neighborhood, literally in “our own back yard,” we rarely visit. We do not hold season passes, and you won’t find us in the holiday crowds for special events.
To us, Colonial Williamsburg is just another “neighborhood” in our town. It is built along existing city streets, and we travel through the historic area almost daily for trips to the post office, shopping, and favorite restaurants.
Our local elementary school is right on the edge of CW, and many private homes and businesses co-exist alongside CW buildings. This area is a seamless mix of public and private, old and new, college, town, National Park, and Foundation.
We are far more likely to shop the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings and visit the shops and restaurants at the commercial end of Duke of Gloucester Street. We do walk farther down DoG Street from time to time as the seasons change, to visit the monuments in the church yard at Bruton Parish, and to see the beautiful wreathes in December.
Today was such a day. This month hasn’t been generous with warm-enough sunny days, and our schedule has been packed with things to do. So today was the first opportunity to continue photographing this season’s wreathes before they disappear at the New Year. CW was full of visitors for the holidays. No parking spots presented themselves as we drove from lot to lot. So today’s photos are taken on the fly in short sprints from a pulled over car, not the result of a leisurely stroll. I hope you will enjoy them, however. The sky was cobalt, the sun blazing, the mood still one of holiday cheer.
It is still Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg, as I hope it is in your town, too.
“The glory of God is to conceal a thing, but the glory of the King (a Man) is to find it out: As if the divine nature, according to the innocent and the sweet play of children; which hide themselves to the end that they may be found, took delight to hide his work to the end that they may be found out; and of his indulgence and goodness to mankind has chosen the soul of man to be his playfellow in this game.“
Sir Francis Bacon, Instauration Magna
All Photos by Woodland Gnome, 2013
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