Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Nationalizing Williamsburg

Mrs. G and I have been visiting Colonial Williamsburg and its neighbor, the College of William and Mary.

I think of the Old Dominion, home of the First Families of Virginia, as worshiping all of its ancestors. I now see, though, that much of the retrieval of colonial Virginia has been a twentieth-century project to give Virginia a usable past that is not confined to the Confederacy. Doing so required re-envisioning early Virginia as part of national history - and getting nationalists from the Empire State involved in paying for it.

The capital of the Virginia colony had a Governor's Palace at the center, with an approaching green. On the street perpendicular to this axis grew up a place for representatives of the citizens to meet, and a school for gentlemen. When the seat of government was moved to Richmond in 1780, Williamsburg became a backwater. The College of William and Mary, after a brave beginning, foundered. By the end of the Civil War the notable colonial buildings of Williamsburg were ruins. The town grew over the old stuff. The Lost Cause became the only history that mattered.

For Williamsburg the change began with Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of Bruton Parish Church at the end of the 19th century. Bruton Parish Church is the Episcopal - and before that, Anglican - church that served the colonial capital. It is located at the corner where the long axis from legislature to school intersects the short axis from the governor's palace. Goodwin was a Virginian and the son of a Confederate veteran. But he also was the priest of a national church. In his first stint at Bruton Parish, and as a teacher at William and Mary, he rebuilt the church. Then he served a church in New York. When he came back to Bruton Parish and to William and Mary, he saw the further decay of the old historical structures of the Old Dominion, the history before the Confederacy. This moved him to undertake a more ambitious plan of restoration.

To rebuild colonial Williamsburg, Goodwin did not get help from Virginia money, from the tobacco magnates and government contractors. He turned to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller with a vision of reviving Williamsburg as a national treasure. The William and Mary professor also cleverly got the "Christopher Wren building," the shell of the founding building of the college, included in Rockefeller's vision of "Colonial Williamsburg." The Rockefellers quietly bought up most of the old part of town. When they announced their intention to restore the colonial city in 1928, there was more consternation than delight. More than 700 buildings were demolished. The three major public buildings were largely gone - they had to be rebuilt from drawings and verbal descriptions. Colonial Williamsburg was not so much restored as re-invented.

A key moment in the drama came when the Yankees wanted to move the Confederate monument from the Palace Green in front of the colonial Governor's Palace. That led the locals to sue. This incident, it seems to me, reveals the core dynamic of what was at stake in reclaiming colonial Williamsburg for the nation.


Anonymous said...

As an amateur architectural historian, I would like to clarify a few details. While I agree with much of the article, it does lead one to think that Colonial Williamsburg is almost totally re-constructed.There are 88 original structures, some of which were in very original condition in 1926. Reverend Godwin did not re-build Bruton Parish Church, but repaired it. Granted, it is a bit of a streatch to say that The Wren building at the college is "original", when only a certain percentage of the walls are, and none of the timbers, woodwork etc.On the other hand, some structures such as the Peyton Randolph house, Weatherburn's tavern, and quite a few others have much or most of their original fabric intact. Colonial Williamsburg is both a re-construction, AND a restoration.

Gruntled said...

Agreed. But the three core buildings - palace, legislative house, and college - are mostly reconstruction. Also, the Wren-ness of the Wren building is a stretch, and is, I think, part of the reconstruction of an old past.