Colonial Williamsburg Builds A Campus For Its
"University Without Walls"
New $37 Million Educational Center Opened April 1997
Each year, more than a million people come to Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area and museums to immerse themselves in the experience of American life before the War of Independence. They stroll through 18th-century streets; visit restored and reconstructed houses; see the furnishings, crafts, and trades of the period; listen to the music of fife and drum; and speak with Colonial Williamsburg’s interpreters--costumed educators, who bring history to life by embodying characters of the time.
To create that experience, Colonial Williamsburg relies of the efforts of a team of scholars, curators, librarians, archivists, conservators, researchers, and film and television producers. All of them work behind the scenes, year-round, toward Colonial Williamsburg’s original and ultimate goal: education.
And yet this extraordinary, multidisciplinary team has been operating at a disadvantage. The library and research division have been housed on the windowless second floor of an old telephone relay building. The mission of conserving priceless artifacts has been carried out in the former Ramblewood Motel. Colonial Williamsburg Productions--which produces programs for audiences of all ages, in the classroom and at home--has worked out of facilities dispersed over four locations.
Now, for the first time, this team has been brought together on a campus of its own. On April 19,1997, Colonial Williamsburg opened its Bruton Heights School Educational Center. Located on a 30-acre campus within easy walking distance of the Historic Area, the Bruton Heights School Education Center encompasses three buildings--two new and one renovated--with 170,000 square feet of space to serve a staff of 185.
Built at a cost of $37.2 million, the Bruton Heights School Education Center comprises:
The John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library: a 33,000 square foot structure housing the research library of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation;
The Wallace Collections and Conservation Building: a 70,000 square foot structure, with an additional 8,000 square feet for the campus’s central utility plant, with storage space for collections, laboratories for conservation, and curatorial offices;
The Bruton Heights School: a historic structure in its own right, renovated to provide 58,000 square feet of classroom and meeting space, offices for the Research Division, and facilities for Colonial Williamsburg Productions.
"One of the most astonishing facts about the success of Colonial Williamsburg, from its founding in 1926 until now, is that we have done so much with so little," remarks Robert C. Wilburn, President of Colonial Williamsburg. Now, at last, we have a campus for the people who conceive and develop our programs, who train our interpreters, who hold and make available the research materials, who collect, study and conserve the objects that are the materials of interpretation."
"This facility represents a great leap forward," Mr. Wilburn continues. "We are now able to enhance our service to the public, throughout the Historic Area and in our museums. We can reach out more effectively to people beyond the physical limits of Colonial Williamsburg. And we can better serve the many scholars and interested members of the public who rely on Colonial Williamsburg as a resource for the study of 18th-century America."
The Bruton Heights School
"If you were to look at the credentials of the Colonial Williamsburg staff and then add up the disciplines we represent, you would think of us as a university," says Cary Carson, Vice President of the Research Division. "The difference is, people in universities tend to work apart from one another, determining individually what they will study. Our people work in harness toward a common goal. Together, we ask ourselves: What do we want Colonial Williamsburg to say to people of the late 20th century, when they want to know about 18th-century life? If those people have time to hear only three things, what should they be? Is what we’re teaching in harmony with the best current thought? And is it in harmony with our visitors’ needs?"
"That’s why it’s wonderful to have this campus," Mr. Carson continues. "Collaboration is essential to our work. It’s the element that allows us to become a university without walls, engaging and educating people of all ages."
The Research Division--encompassing historical, architectural, and archaeological research--is housed in the renovated Bruton Heights School, only a few steps away from the new John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library and the new Wallace Collections and Conservation Building. Colonial Williamsburg’s scholars now have immediate access to the primary materials they need for their work. Equally important, they have immediate access to the people who convey their interpretations to the public. The Bruton Heights School building also provides space for classrooms, an auditorium and the facilities of Colonial Williamsburg Productions.
Built in the late 1930’s through the combined efforts of the Rockefeller family, Colonial Williamsburg, the City of Williamsburg, and the federal government, Bruton Heights was founded as a model educational facility and community center for the Williamsburg area’s African-American children during the years of segregation. The school opened in 1940 and served students of all ages until January 1966, when the Williamsburg schools finally abandoned segregation. Students in grades nine through twelve then moved out of Bruton Heights; the building continued to function as an elementary school until 1989, when the Williamsburg/James City County School System decided it was no longer needed. At that time, Colonial Williamsburg agreed to acquire the building and surrounding acreage, seeing in it an opportunity to create a much-needed campus.
In recognition of the building’s significance, Colonial Williamsburg created a gallery just off the lobby, with a permanent exhibition about the school and the history of education among African-Americans. Colonial Williamsburg also makes the building’s classrooms and The Bill and Jean Lane Auditorium available for community use on evenings and weekends.
At other times, the auditorium provides a venue for conferences, symposia, lectures, and larger-scale training sessions for Colonial Williamsburg’s interpreters. And it serves as a sound-mixing studio for Colonial Williamsburg Productions.
"Colonial Williamsburg is the only museum in North America that operates as a full-scale producer of films, television programs, and sound recordings," says Richard McCluney, Director of Colonial Williamsburg Productions. "In fact, we have been a producer for fifty years, with the idea that Colonial Williamsburg’s stories belong to a wider audience than the visitors. For schools, we create a continuing series titled Electronic Field Trips, with the idea that if students can’t come to Colonial Williamsburg, we’ll bring Colonial Williamsburg to them. For the general public, we have created a range of projects, including 12 hours of programming for the Learning Channel and 15 hours for the History Channel."
"So far," Mr. McCluney says, "we’ve done all this without having a studio. Our main production facilities were two trucks parked on the street. But thanks to the creation of the Bruton Heights School Education Center, we now have everything we need --and not only in terms of equipment. Our historical advisors are here in the building with us. The furnishings we need for an 18th century setting, and the conservators who can handle them, are across the way in the Wallace Building. And when we want to broadcast something we’ve shot in the Historic Area, or beam a program into one of our museums, we can do that, too, since our studio is connected by fiber optic cable to the rest of Colonial Williamsburg ."
The Wallace Collections and Conservation Building
"Are these facilities better than what we’ve had before? They’re stratospherically better," says John Sands, Director of Administration for Collections and Conservation. "And it took the creation of the Center as a whole to bring us up to this level. There is no incremental way to get state-of-the-art laboratories and storage equipment. You can’t spend your way into them gradually, and you can’t retrofit. The leadership of an institution has to make the commitment to lift you to a higher plateau. That’s what happened with the decision to build this Center--and the benefits are going to be felt not only in Colonial Williamsburg but throughout our field."
At the core of the Wallace Building are technologically sophisticated storage areas for textiles, furniture, silver, ceramics, paintings, prints, drawings, tools--all of the materials, except for archaeological objects, that are seen in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area and museums. Around the storage areas are laboratories for the conservation of all of Colonial Williamsburg’s collections, except the buildings themselves.
Because of the Wallace Building’s proximity to the Library and the Bruton Heights building, the collections are used more fully, not only by Colonial Williamsburg’s own researchers but also by visiting scholars. There will also be a significant ripple effect in the field of conservation. Colonial Williamsburg already has established a model program for training people who handle objects and perform routine maintenance in the Historic Area, and this program has been copied successfully by other museums. With the opening of the Wallace Building, Colonial Williamsburg is expanding its post-graduate internship program for conservators, who learn the est current practices and then carry them from the Bruton Heights School Education Center to museums throughout the United States and the world.
The John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library
"We are an unusual hybrid--a research library that welcomes the public," says Susan Berg, Director of the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library. "Our primary mission is to serve Colonial Williamsburg’s staff and visiting scholars. But we also provide an important resource for the faculty and students of the College of William and Mary, and we have been receiving more than 6,000 visits a year from the general public--even though we’ve been virtually invisible! With the opening of the Bruton Heights School Education Center, we are finally on the map, serving all of these constituencies more efficiently and actively than ever before."
The new Library’s distinct character becomes evident as soon as the visitor steps past the main reference desk. Where other libraries might make available recent copies of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library puts out facsimiles of the 18th-century monument of learning, Diderot’s Encyclopédie.
The collections now include some 65,000 volumes, 43,000 manuscripts, 12,000 rare books, 50,000 architectural drawings, and hundreds of thousands of maps, photographs, videotapes, and microforms. Among these items are a copy of George Washington’s journal, one of the eight known to exist; the original manuscript of Patrick Henry’s resolves against the Stamp Act of 1765, the colony’s first protest against the power of Great Britain; and a significant number of 18th-century imprints, public acts, political pamphlets, histories, religious tracts, newspapers, playbills, broadsides--even a cookbook--from Williamsburg.
These materials represent a major resource for the study of colonial Virginia and early American history and culture. They are also invaluable to the Colonial Williamsburg architect who is reconstructing a historic building; the Colonial Williamsburg gardener who wants to know if a certain bush would have been planted in the 18th century; the publisher or designer who is seeking images of 18th century America; and members of the general public, who come in search of information about restoring their home, pursuing a craft or hobby, identifying an antique, or tracing an ancestor.
For those who are in Colonial Williamsburg, the new Library offers greatly improved service. The amenities include an exhibition gallery off the lobby, comfortable new reading rooms, built-in computer stations, a meeting room, and a handsome periodicals room overlooking the complex. For people outside Colonial Williamsburg, the Library’s materials will be more accessible, through on-line catalogues and an expanded program of interlibrary loans. Since 1985, the Library’s exchanges with other institutions have jumped by more than 600 percent. "With the opening of the Center, the demand is certain to increase," notes Susan Berg, "and we look forward to it."
Building the Center
When the creation of the Bruton Heights School Education Center was first proposed in 1990 by then-president Charles R. Longsworth, Colonial Williamsburg estimated that the project would be accomplished in stages over the course of 15 years. A site plan was approved in January 1994. Since then, under the guidance of Beatrix T. Rumford, Colonial Williamsburg’s Vice President for Special Projects, the Center as a whole has been constructed in a little more than three years.
Crucial to this success has been the involvement of an extraordinary set of supporters. These include Walter H. Annenberg, George and Abby O’Neill, Ambassador Laurence William Lane, Jr. And Jean Lane, and the DeWitt Wallace Fund for Colonial Williamsburg.
Tours are available for the public Monday through Friday. Inquire at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center when you purchase tickets, or call 1-800-246-2099.