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May 20, 2009

CW's Capitol Building and Governor's Palace celebrate 75th anniversaries

Two of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area exhibition sites – the Capitol Building and the Governor’s Palace – celebrate their 75th anniversaries in 2009. Both played roles in creating the foundations for an independent nation. At the Capitol, Patrick Henry delivered his Caesar-Brutus speech against the Stamp Act in 1765. The Governor’s Palace served as the residence for two Virginia Commonwealth governors – Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.

By the early 19th century both buildings had been destroyed. In the 20th century, the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin wanted to restore the 18th-century capital of Virginia to its original glory. The Capitol and the Governor’s Palace were eventually reconstructed and opened as exhibition buildings in 1934.

Beginning May 25, special focus tours of the Capitol and Governor’s Palace tell the story of how the two sites have evolved. Guests can:

  • Examine the beginnings of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the people who were instrumental in bringing the Historic Area into being, the creation of public awareness of America’s architectural treasures and the development of preservation techniques;
  • Learn about the era in which the Capitol Building and the Governor’s Palace were reconstructed; and
  • Understand the techniques used to research, reconstruct and furnish these two buildings by examining photos, documents and the buildings.

    Tours of the Capitol are offered from noon to 1:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Tours of the Governor’s Palace are offered 3:30 p.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from May 25-June 14. Additional tour dates will be announced on Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site at A Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket or Good Neighbor Card provides access to enjoy these programs. For more information, call 1-800-HISTORY.


    At the Capitol, Henry, George Washington, George Mason, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson and others played their parts in the legislative battles began the American Revolution.

    When Jefferson became governor in 1779, the General Assembly made the recommendation to move the government to Richmond. The building was last used as a Capitol on Dec. 24, 1779, when the General Assembly adjourned to reconvene on May 1 at the new state capital in Richmond.

    In subsequent years, the building served as an admiralty court, a military barracks and a law school. A grammar school opened in the Secretary’s Office.

    When a fire destroyed the building in 1832, the Capitol was being used as a meeting space for one of the state superior courts for this region. A female academy was newly constructed on the site in 1839. The Capitol was reconstructed by the Boston architectural firm Perry, Shaw and Hepburn. The building was rebuilt as the 1705 Capitol. The new Capitol was dedicated with a ceremonial meeting of the General Assembly of Virginia on Feb. 24, 1934.

    The opening of the reconstructed Capitol and General Assembly opened with Gov. George C. Peery and John D. Rockefeller Jr. delivered addresses to celebrate the significance of the occasion and its relation to the many historic associations with which the original Capitol in Williamsburg was identified. The Virginia General Assembly has conducted special joint commemorative sessions here every four years since the dedication.

    Three gubernatorial inaugurations have taken place in the Capitol in Williamsburg. Henry took the oath of office here June 29, 1776. Jefferson became the Commonwealth’s chief executive June 1, 1779. On Jan. 14, 2006, Timothy Kaine was sworn in at the colonial capital as Virginia’s 70th governor.

    The original Governor’s Palace was completed in 1722, after 16 years of construction. Standing as evidence of the position vice royalty enjoyed in the capital of England’s largest American colony, it was the third largest public building in Williamsburg.

    Royal Governor Lord Dunmore, summoning 40 sailors and marines to protect him from angry citizens, turned the Palace into a garrison when the city recoiled after Dunmore removed the militia’s gunpowder from the Magazine in April 1775. In June, Dunmore fled, never to return, leaving all many of his personal belongings behind.

    Gen. Charles Lee of the Continental Army made the Palace his headquarters until Virginia’s newly independent government renovated the structure for Gov. Henry.

    Jefferson succeeded Henry in office and residence. He drew a floor plan of the Palace, perhaps with a view to remodeling. The government moved the next year to Richmond, and nothing came of the plans.

    The Palace served as a field hospital for American soldiers wounded in the Siege of Yorktown in 1781. Some 156 of them and two women are buried in the garden. On Dec. 22, 1781, a fire destroyed the building. More than 100 sick and wounded soldiers were in it when the fire was discovered, but only one perished in the flames.

    The government sold the bricks and the advance buildings in 1782. In 1862, Union soldiers pulled down the advance buildings so officers at Fort Magruder east of town might have bricks to build chimneys for their huts. The site passed to the College of William and Mary after the Civil War.

    Two school buildings stood near the Palace grounds when Colonial Williamsburg purchased the property in 1928. Archaeological investigations, beginning in 1930, uncovered the original footings, the cellars, debris from the fire and a section of original wall.

    Fortunately, when it came to rebuilding of the Palace for the Restoration, there was a great deal of information available for its accurate reconstruction by the architects. Journals of the House of Burgesses and other colony records, extensive inventories of the private furnishings and artifacts were employed in reconstruction of the original buildings. The measured floor plan drawn by Jefferson aided in determining the original interior arrangements of stairs, walls and chimneys. The architects of the excavation were guided by a copperplate engraving discovered in the Bodleian Library at Oxford in 1929, showing the approach façade as it was between 1742 and 1747.

    The Governor’s Palace opened as a Historic Area exhibition site in April 23, 1934.

    Established in 1926, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Within the restored and reconstructed buildings, historic interpreters, attired as colonial men and women from slaves to shopkeepers to soldiers, relate stories of colonial Virginia society and culture – stories of our journey to become Americans – while historic trades people research, demonstrate and preserve the 18th-century world of work and industry. As Colonial Williamsburg interprets life in the time of the American Revolution guests interact with history through “Revolutionary City®” – a dramatic live street theater presentation.

    Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site at

    Media Contact:
    Penna Rogers
    (757) 220-7121

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