Official planning for Colonial Williamsburg began in 1926, and the town was finally informed of the project in June 1928. Their objections were minimal, although one townsperson memorably chafed at the idea of being "in the position of a butterfly pinned to a card in a glass cabinet." Restoration eventually encompassed 85 percent of Williamsburg's original eighteenth-century area, with more than seven hundred buildings that postdated 1790 being demolished. The site stretches across 301 acres.
Rockefeller, Goodwin, and their associates described the new Colonial Williamsburg "as a shrine of history and beauty" that would be "dedicated to the lives of the nation's builders." "There will be windows built here," they declared, "through which men may look down the vistas of the past." Their vision stressed the importance of the democratic ideal, promoting an almost religious message that not only heightened patriotic feeling, but was also the main educational purpose behind the project's conception. Ideals of classical American values were placed in the forefront, along with an attempt at scholarly recreation of the town's buildings.
Rockefeller's historical vision, steeped as it was in sentimental patriotism and nostalgia for better times, was typical of its day. Unsettling economic and social change following the World War I (1914–1918) tended to elicit strong expressions of national identity among Americans, Colonial Williamsburg serving as but one of them. The rigid hierarchy of the Old South, coupled with the Founding Fathers' brightly delineated principles of freedom and liberty, provided the foundation of a comforting narrative. And it was a narrative best left undisturbed by nettlesome questions over, say, Thomas Jefferson and his "property."
Rockefeller and Goodwin, through the architecture firm of Perry, Shaw & Hepburn, applied a passionate attention to detail in their restoration efforts. Furnishings, houses, and gardens were all copied exactly from colonial styles and came to represent a kind of symbiosis between those suffering the brunt of the Great Depression and those who had endured the hardships of the American Revolution a century and a half earlier. People were urged to make pilgrimages to the shrine for inspiration during the bleak years of the 1930s, further reinforcing the restoration's curative powers on a nation that had lost direction and perhaps the will to carry on its "noble experiment."
World War II and the Cold War
By late in the 1960s and early in the 1970s, the programming at Colonial Williamsburg still did not reflect a sophisticated understanding of the many different groups that had once inhabited the former capital—men, women, black, white, Indian, slave, indentured, and free—and how they had interacted. In particular, officials were concerned that an overt promotion of African American history would be bad for business in the South. Nevertheless, a growing number of visitors (black and white) began to question the absence, wondering how the fullest narrative of American life could be told without a greater attention to slavery. And although academics had widely published the appropriate research, Williamsburg's caretakers pretended not to notice.
The Emergence of Social History
Things finally changed following lower-than-expected attendance during the bicentennial celebrations of 1976. The next year, Colonial Williamsburg moved to present an updated and more socially oriented version of colonial history through the leadership of the Harvard-educated historian Cary Carson. Calling his approach "Becoming Americans," Carson attempted to integrate social history with the town's traditional presentation of political history. For instance, a tour called "According to the Ladies" introduced visitors to the lives of Williamsburg women. Historical interpreters began to portray slaves for the first time, and in 1988 slave cabins were reconstructed at Carter's Grove, an eighteenth-century plantation about five miles outside of Williamsburg.
This attitude certainly marked a sea change at Colonial Williamsburg, but sometimes efforts at social history became too uncomfortable. An attempt to reenact an eighteenth-century slave auction, which included the separation of families, led to such intense reactions on the parts of staff, participants, and visitors that the event was never repeated.
Attendance dipped further following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Fewer visitors meant fewer historical interpreters and fewer employees overall, so that by 2004, Colonial Williamsburg almost resembled a ghost town. The project's response to this new crisis was the "Revolutionary City." In a form of "street theater," historical interpreters portray social and political events in Williamsburg, focusing on the years 1774 to 1781. The town's historical landmarks, once only static museum pieces, become sets in an ongoing drama. In the meantime, Colonial Williamsburg has expanded the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, installed electronic classrooms for students, built a spa, and newly renovated its hotels and restaurants, turning the town into a kind of American history resort. The result has been a slight increase in attendance.
All of these changes have reshaped Colonial Williamsburg for its new role in the twenty-first century. While politics and "healthful" history are still the focus, Colonial Williamsburg now seeks to present the lives of the average men and women who lived in and around Virginia's colonial capital. In this way, the modern Colonial Williamsburg tells a more complete story of the eighteenth century than it did in its early days. While it no longer precisely mirrors the dream of its founders, it provides the modern visitor with a fuller educational experience, one that lets them better appreciate the men and women who helped to forge the United States.
1632 - The city of Williamsburg is founded between the York and James rivers.
1698 - Williamsburg is designated capital of the English colony.
1722 - Williamsburg is bestowed with a royal charter.
1924 - Reverend William Archer Rutherfoord Goodwin approaches philanthropist and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. to procure funds for the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.
1926 - Official planning for Colonial Williamsburg begins.
June 1928 - Residents of Williamsburg are informed of official planning for Colonial Williamsburg and of the project's financing through John D. Rockefeller Jr.
1976 - Colonial Williamsburg celebrates the nation's bicentennial year. Due to lower-than-expected attendance, the following year would mark a change to incorporate an updated and more socially oriented version of colonial history, allowing for elaboration on the position of marginalized parties, under the leadership of historian Cary Carson.
1988 - Slave cabins are reconstructed at Carter's Grove, an eighteenth-century plantation about five miles outside of Williamsburg.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Greenspan, A. Colonial Williamsburg. (2012, December 6). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Colonial_Williamsburg.
- MLA Citation:
Greenspan, Anders. "Colonial Williamsburg." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 6, 2008 | Last modified: December 6, 2012