- Construction completed in 1733
- House serves as home for presidents of College of William & Mary
- All but one president of 300-year-old college lived in brick Georgian home
- House sheltered General Cornwallis and French officers recovering from wounds
Home sheltered college presidents, British general, and French officers
Every president except one of the more than 300-year-old college of William and Mary has lived in its President's House. The brick Georgian home on the north side of the College yard also has sheltered General Cornwallis and French officers recovering from wounds sustained before Yorktown.
Construction of the five-bay, hip-roofed house began July 31, 1732. The faculty minutes say James Blair, president and founder of the school, and professors Dawson, Fry, Stith, and Fox laid "the first five Bricks in Order, one after the other. The Reason of the Foundations being laid this Day was, that Mr. Henry Cary, the undertaker (builder), had appointed the Bricklayers to be ready that Day and that they could not proceed till the Foundation was laid."
Few buildings in town surpassed the "common brick house"
"Undertaker" was the word used in the 18th century to describe a contractor, and Cary was among Virginia's best. But the fledgling college could afford only £650 for this project, and he built what a contemporary called "a common brick house" with few pretensions. Be that as it may, there were few buildings in the countryside that equaled it, and not many in town that surpassed it.
House brought symmetry to original campus
Completed in 1733, the President's House brought symmetry to the original campus, and symmetry was a matter of moment. With the Brafferton to its south and the Wren Building to its west, the President's House completed a U-shape that opened on Duke of Gloucester Street.
It was an imperfect world even in the 18th century. The yard doesn't quite square with the broad avenue that stretches a mile east to the Capitol. Nor does the President's House quite square with the Wren and, though at a glance it looks to be the mirror image of the Brafferton, it is not. Standing 56 feet wide and 38 feet tall, the President's House is four feet larger in every dimension.
Most of the extra height is in the roof and chimneys and, on the south facade, the extra width increases the distance between the central door and the windows. There are three dormers in the roof. Inside, the eight rooms (four up and four down) are bigger.
The height from the ground to the top of the cornice is one-half the building's width, and the height to the tops of the chimneys equals the width. The windows on the upper floor are shorter than the windows below, but just as wide.
Foundation English bond; Flemish bond with glazed headers above
Cary's bricklayers made the foundation in English bond, using Flemish bond with glazed headers above, and gave the window lintels rubbed and gauged brick. By Cary's contract, the building was to be finished by October 1733. Blair walked up the seven stone steps to become its first occupant.
Cornwallis turned Rev. James Madison out of the house June 25, 1781
The Reverend James Madison, second cousin of the president of that name, was in residence with his wife when General Cornwallis arrived June 25, 1781, and turned them out. St. George Tucker, an American officer who would return after the war and raise the St. George Tucker House, reported that the Madisons were given other campus quarters but were treated contemptuously. "They were refused the small Privilege of drawing Water from their own Well," he wrote.
British left after ten days; French hospital corps took over the house and campus
The unwelcome redcoats left after 10 days, but General Rochambeau's hospital corps took over the house (and the rest of the campus) on September 15 as the Battle of Yorktown neared. Madison's home was reserved for officers who, by accident, set it afire December 22.
French officers paid to repair home they had damaged by fire
The French bargained Madison into accepting £12,000 to repair the gutted building. Given the runaway inflation of the war, it was a small enough sum. Nevertheless, the payments were slow in arriving from the government of King Louis XVI, and it was five years before the Madisons could move back into the house.
It appears no further accidents befell the building, even during the Civil War, when the Wren building burned and the Brafferton – for a time Union headquarters – was stripped for firewood. Restoration of the exterior of the President's House to its colonial appearance began in April 1931 and, with the removal of minor exterior additions, was completed in September. Today, the home remains the private residence of the chief executive of the College of William & Mary.
The president's house is a private residence and not a Colonial Williamsburg exhibition site.