The Restoration of Williamsburg
by Mark R. Wenger
restoration of Williamsburg is a mammoth undertaking that began in 1927 and
continues today. The prime mover behind this enterprise was Dr. William A.R.
Goodwin, then rector of Bruton Parish Church. Dr. Goodwin had first come to
Williamsburg in 1903. Fascinated by the town’s old buildings and historic
past, he launched a one-man campaign to restore the old church, a feat that
he successfully completed in 1907. In
commemoration, Goodwin published a short book titled Bruton Parish
Church Restored and Its Historic Environment. He expressed his
concern for the historical ambience of the entire town, pleading that citizens
should halt what he regarded as “the spirit of ruthless innovation which
threatens to rob the city of its distinction and charm.” Shortly afterward,
he left Williamsburg to accept the pastorate of St. Paul’s Church in Rochester,
New York. However, in 1923 he returned to Williamsburg and was eventually reinstated
as rector of Bruton Parish Church.
In the years since his departure, telephones, electricity, and worst of all, the automobile had arrived in Williamsburg. Service stations and a string of utility poles down the center of Duke of Gloucester Street had appeared as permanent fixtures in the townscape. While these look harmless enough today, they must have multiplied Dr. Goodwin’s fears that the old town’s charms were being sacrificed in the inexorable march of progress. “Williamsburg,” he noted, is a “canvas [whose] tokens and symbols of a glorious past” are rapidly disappearing. With an increased sense of urgency, Goodwin began to search for a solution. During his sojourn in New York, he had conceived of and nurtured a grand vision of restoring not just a few key buildings, but all of Williamsburg to its eighteenth-century appearance. Restoration on such a scale was unprecedented, and would require enormous financial resources. Mindful of this, Goodwin solicited Henry Ford about the possibility of funding such a project, pointing out that it was Ford’s automobiles, after all, which were threatening to do the town in. Evidently, Mr. Ford wasn’t impressed.
But John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was impressed. Goodwin had met Rockefeller in 1924 at a meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa society in New York City. It was two years later, though, when the society met in Williamsburg, that Goodwin introduced Rockefeller to his adopted town.
Impressed with what he saw, Rockefeller asked that he be left alone to stroll about the town. During the course of his afternoon walk, Dr. Goodwin’s dream of a restored colonial town laid its grip on Rockefeller. That night at dinner, Goodwin’s new patron authorized him to hire an architect who would prepare sketches of Williamsburg as it might appear following restoration.
As a result, Goodwin engaged the Boston architectural firm of Perry, Shaw & Hepburn to begin the task. Working at night to avoid alarming residents of the town, Dr. Goodwin assisted William G. Perry in charting the town’s layout, property lines, and buildings. By 1927, preliminary drawings illustrating restoration of the entire town were complete, and Rockefeller instructed Goodwin to proceed with the acquisition of some key properties. The restoration of Williamsburg was underway!
To the men and women involved, the task was a labor of love. Immediately, they found it necessary to collect source material on architectural precedents to be used in their work. Working on weekends and holidays, eager draftsmen fanned out over the countryside to collect data on Virginia’s eighteenth-century buildings. In many cases, the fruits of these expeditions were put to immediate use. The rapid pace of work in the drafting room demanded constant labor in the countryside.
Equally urgent was the need for information on the history of the town and the individual buildings that were to be restored or reconstructed. To meet this need, a small group of historians began the mammoth job of culling the historical record for relevant information. Through the efforts of these dedicated historians, an immense body of data, now taken for granted, was assembled over an amazingly short period of time.
The importance of this research to the restoration is clear when we consider the reconstruction of the Governors’ Palace that occurred over a four-year period between 1930 and 1934. As with other buildings scheduled for restoration or reconstruction, voluminous research notes were compiled relating to the Palace and the various governors who lived there. While the entire picture of the Palace emerged only after numerous bits of information had been assembled and analyzed, there were five basic sources from which the essential form and appearance of the Governors’ Palace were determined.
Among the most important of these sources was a dimensioned floor plan of the Palace made by Thomas Jefferson in 1779. This sketch was discovered among Jefferson’s architectural drawings, and associated with the Governor’s Palace prior to 1916. The plan allowed an accurate interpretation of documentary and archaeological evidence and, as one would expect, it provided a basis for the reconstructed plans of the building’s first and second floors.
In December 1929, Mary Goodwin discovered in England an eighteenth-century engraved copper plate depicting among other things, the College of William and Mary, the first Capitol building, and the Governor’s Palace. Because it afforded carefully drawn views of all three early public buildings, this engraving remains one of the most important finds made during the entire restoration effort. From it came nearly all information available on the external appearance of the Palace, its advance buildings, and the surrounding scheme of plantings.
Also discovered during the early stages of research was a map of Williamsburg, made in 1782 by a French military cartographer. Now referred to as the “Frenchman’s Map, this document offered crucial information concerning the layout of the Palace grounds and outbuildings. The gardens and major outbuildings visitors now see were reconstructed in general accordance with this map.
Exciting new sources continued to turn up. In September 1930, Ms. Goodwin located an estate inventory for the Governor’s Palace made after Lord Botetourt’s death in 1770. Found among records at the Virginia State Library, this minutely detailed document provided a room-by-room listing of both his Lordship’s personal effects and of the building’s publicly-owned contents. Assisted by the inventory, the architects were able to identify more than twenty-five rooms and spaces on the site.
During the preceding summer, archaeologist Prentice Duell had excavated the site of the Governor’s Palace, uncovering the foundations of the main building and its immediate surroundings. These and subsequent investigations permitted a synthesis of existing documentation and provided valuable information bearing on the layout of the grounds and detailing numerous architectural features.
From these five sources, architects assembled the primary facts concerning the general form and appearance of the Governor’s Palace.
Bringing together this evidence to recreate the front elevation of the Palace was one of the really outstanding achievements of the reconstruction project. The copper plate, of course, showed the general appearance of the building. Because Thomas Jefferson included the room heights of the first-and second-floors on his measured plan, it was possible to establish the front facade’s vertical dimensions with an unusual degree of accuracy. The exact elevation of the first floor, with respect to the ground outside, was calculated using the rise of the steps at the building’s west entrance. This floor elevation was then checked against the reconstructed height of the cellar vaults, and proven correct.
Archaeology provided amazingly detailed information about the character of the building’s brickwork. From intact fragments of masonry, the architects deduced the bonding pattern, rubbing details, and joint treatment used by Palace bricklayers more than 250 years earlier.
By 1934, the College of William and Mary had been restored, and the Governor’s Palace and Capitol had again risen from their old foundations. As in the early years of the eighteenth century, these great structures became the centerpieces of a new beginning—a first step that would ensure the future of a brave new enterprise. Gradually, as surviving houses were restored and missing buildings reconstructed, the street-fronts between these monuments were transformed.
In many cases, surviving buildings had been so radically altered over the years as to obscure their identity as colonial period structures. One of which is the Margaret Hunter millinery shop [millineryshop.jpg]. Only a trained eye would have recognized the eighteenth-century brickwork of the store’s side walls.
Quite often, the old buildings had been enlarged in some fashion—in this case with an extension nearly as large as the original house. When such extensions were early features, or unusually fine examples of later work, they were allowed to remain as can be seen at the Coke-Garrett House. The portion at the left was erected during the latter decades of the eighteenth-century. Those in the center and to the right were added shortly after 1837.
A few of the town’s eighteenth-century dwellings had survived the centuries in nearly unaltered condition. Such was the case with the house, once owned by the Reverend John Bracken, Rector of Bruton Parish Church from 1773 to 1818. As can be seen this house was virtually intact at the time of its restoration.
The house of Robert Nicholson belonged to a tailor mentioned earlier as living among other tradesmen in the [Benjamin] Waller suburb. This house had come through the nineteenth century with few alterations, besides the installation of a window.
Most buildings, though, bore numerous accretions, often dating from the Victorian era. At the Brush-Everard House, was a veranda erected during that period with its characteristic jig-sawn ornament. Porches of this kind usually provided a usable area on the upper level of the house. As a result, it was common to find a second floor window enlarged for access to the upper porch deck. In Williamsburg, this alteration was almost universal among houses having an added porch. As one house after another was restored, the porches and second floor doors began to disappear.
In the years preceding the restoration, many buildings had disappeared entirely. In such instances the findings of archaeologists and archivists proved extremely useful. For some structures, such as Shields Tavern, there were room-by-room probate inventories which assisted in the interpretation of architectural evidence.
In other cases, drawings, paintings, or even photographs provided invaluable evidence about the appearance of structures long since vanished. Sources of this kind were crucial in reconstruction of the John Crump House.
Just up the street, was the Scrivener House. It is what we call a side-passage dwelling, since the hallway runs down its side, rather than through its middle. An old photograph was an important source of information, enabling reconstruction of the dwelling as it appears today . . .
Photos were also used in the reconstruction of the Printing Office. Next time you are near the Printing Office, notice the positioning of the building’s windows and doors—an arrangement that was typical for structures serving as shops or stores. The right-hand door led into a square, unheated room (the retail area) where stock was displayed and transactions were handled. Through the left-hand door was a smaller, heated space usually called the “counting room,” where the merchant kept ledgers and account books. The retail area is lit by two windows arranged symmetrically on either side of the main door; the counting room is lit by a single window. This seemingly random jumble of doors and windows tells us, then, that the structure was originally built for commercial use.
There were other ways of packaging this same form. Often the long axis of the building was turned perpendicular to the street, with the heated counting room behind—not beside—the retail area. As a result, the chimney stands at the rear of these buildings. This is noted at the Prentis Store [Prentis.jpg], one of the best surviving eighteenth-century commercial buildings in Virginia. Except for the front wall, the brickwork of this structure, and most of its exterior trim, were more or less intact when restoration began in 1932. At the time, this building was serving as a garage and gas station. Seen in the light of an old photograph, Dr. Goodwin’s objections to automobiles in Williamsburg would seem to carry greater credit.
Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, the restoration work continued. During World War II, building activity came to a temporary halt. At war’s end, however, the work was resumed, and has continued to the present day.