Today nearly every schoolchild knows the town of Williamsburg. That that is the case is due not so much to the great history that happened here but to the vision of one man - William Archer Rutherford Goodwin.
To be sure, Williamsburg, which served as capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780, saw its share of notable events, most significantly the fiery rhetoric in the Virginia Capitol by Patrick Henry and brush-ups during the Revolutionary War and Civil War. But after the capital shuffled off to Richmond in 1780 the town led a mostly somnambulant existence for a century and a half.
William Goodwin, then 33 years of age, arrived in Williamsburg in 1903 to become pastor of the Bruton Parish Church. Goodwin was struck by the number of still-standing 18th century buildings in his new community and was inspired to restore his church in time for the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the Episcopal Church in America at Jamestown in 1907.
And then Goodwin left to minister to a church in Rochester, New York.
He returned to Bruton Parish in 1923 and was dismayed at the changes that had occurred to Williamsburg in his absence - the deterioration and loss of the antique buildings was rampant. In his mind Dr. Goodwin hatched a scheme not just to save and restore a building here and there but to bring its 18th century appearance back to Williamsburg. He found perhaps the best ally in the country to pull off such an audacious plan - John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil. With the Rockefeller money they founded Colonial Williamsburg and created a 301-acre Historic Area. Some 459 buildings were torn down, 91 of the Colonial period rebuilt, 67 restored and a new shopping center in Colonial style was provided.
Today, Colonial Williamsburg is Virginia’s largest tourist attraction and we will begin right at its center, on a green space that was framed by catalpa trees where Americans first enjoyed stage plays, an area whose restoration was targeted as one of Colonial Williamsburg’s first restorations...
START ON THE PALACE GREEN ON THE NORTH SIDE OF DUKE OF GLOUCESTER STREET, THE WIDE TREE-LINED MAIN STREET OF WILLIAMSBURG. STANDING ON THE PALACE GREEN WALK TO THE NORTH (CLOSED) END.
north end of Palace Green
This is another reconstruction; the original 1722 building was consumed by fire while being used as a military hospital for soldiers wounded at Yorktown. Lord Dunmore was the last of seven Royal governors to occupy the official executive residence before fleeing in 1775. it also served as the executive mansion for the Commonwealth’s first two governors: Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, until the state capital was moved inland to Richmond in 1780. The Georgian-style palace rises two full stories to a denticulated cornice beneath a steep and many-dormered hip roof, surmounted by a balustraded platform and a tall lantern cupola rising in two stages between multiple chimneys. The palace gardens and dependencies have also been faithfully reproduced.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE PALACE, WALK DOWN THE COBBLE PATH TO YOUR LEFT. AT NICHOLSON STREET TURN LEFT.
St. George Tucker HouseNicholson Street at Palace Green
Bermuda-born St. George Tucker, a Revolutionary War officer and later a judge, acquired three lots on the Palace Green in 1788 from Edmund Randolph for the sum of ?100. His new property included William Levingston’s home and the theater that he operated, the first in America. Tucker moved the wooden Levingston house to its current location where it grew through the years to handle the growing brood of Tucker children - nine by his two wives and five stepchildren. With such a family it is appropriate that the first Christmas tree in Williamsburg was displayed at the house in 1842. Tucker descendants lived here until 1993.
Peyton Randolph House
Nicholson Street at North England Street
One of the oldest original houses in Williamsburg, the original part of the building was the west wing, constructed about 1715 by William Robertson. Sir John Randolph purchased Robertson’s house in 1721 and three years later built what was to become the east wing of the house when it was reconstructed by Colonial Williamsburg in 1938. Sir John’s son, Peyton, who would be Speaker of Virginia’s House of Burgesses in the inflammatory years prior to the Revolution and president of the First continental Congress, built the central core of the house in 1751.
north side of Nicholson Street
Here is an antique house that has not received the Colonial Williamsburg treatment. The frame house was built about 1825 and is credited to Richard Booker, a carpenter and town constable. It has been stabilized and preserved but not restored.
north side of Nicholson Street
The Virginia General Assembly dictated that a “substantial brick prison” be constructed shortly after it decreed that Williamsburg would be the Colonial capital. Part of the jail was ready for use by 1704, debtors’ cells were added in 1711. The most celebrated guests of the colony were 15 henchmen of the pirate Blackbeard, captured in 1718. They were confined here until their hanging. The Gaol became a county facility in 1780 and, much modified over the years, served until 1910. The restored building, with part of its thick walls still original, was dedicated in 1936.
TURN RIGHT AND MAKE YOUR WAY UP THE SLOPE TO THE MAIN THOROUGHFARE OF COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG, DUKE OF GLOUCESTER STREET.
Blair Street and Duke of Gloucester Street on north side of Capitol
This single story Georgian brick building stands as the oldest archival structure in America, thrust into use after the Capitol went up in flames in 1747. The Public Records Office was ready the next year, constructed at a cost of ?367. Its records were removed to Richmond with the capital in 1780. The building did duty afterwards as a school and was modified into a residence.
east end of Duke of Gloucester Street
This checkerboard brick building of light-colored stretchers and glazed headers is a reconstruction of the first capitol, built on the original foundations of the “best and most commodious pile” in Colonial America. This was the original meeting place for the House of Burgesses, Virginia’s Colonial legislature, and constructed between 1701 and 1705. It burned on January 30, 1747. By 1753 a second building was on the site, which lasted until it too perished in a fire in 1832. it was in that building that Patrick Henry introduced the Stamp Act Resolutions of May 29, 1765, declaring that, “if this be treason, make the most of it.” The course toward Revolution had been set. Restoration began in 1929.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK DOWN DUKE OF GLOUCESTER STREET.
north side of Duke of Gloucester Street, east of Botetourt Street
Less than a block from the Capitol the Raleigh Tavern, established in 1717 and named for Sir Walter Raleigh, became a natural meeting place for burgesses and politically inclined Virginians to debate the merits of independence. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry were all known to express opinions in this public house. The building was reconstructed after a fire destroyed it in 1859. A bust of namesake Raleigh greets patrons from a perch in the broken pediment over the doorway.
south side of Duke of Gloucester Street, east of Botetourt Street
This is an original clapboard building, expanded to its present size after 1751 and restored to that appearance. Henry Wetherburn had operated the Raleigh Tavern across the street before taking over this establishment, which appealed to a distinguished clientele, in 1738.
Magazine & Guardhouse
south side of Duke of Gloucester Street at England Street
This octagonal powder magazine in Market Square was constructed in 1715 with brick walls nearly two feet thick. On the morning of April 21, 1775, the citizens of Williamsburg awoke to discover that during the night Lord Dunmore had secretly removed all the gunpowder from the public magazine. Patrick Henry organized a march by the Hanover County militia to confront Dunmore and have the powder replaced. An outraged Dunmore finally agreed to reimburse the virginia treasury, but he kept the powder. The brick wall, a restoration, was added in 1755 during alarms in the French and Indian War and was disassembled in 1855.
Market Square on Duke of Gloucester Street
This one-story brick courthouse is the town’s third, with the first case tried here in 1771. Benjamin Waller read Declaration of Independence from the steps of courthouse - steps that had been imported from England in 1772. The building was used by the local government for more than 160 years. It looks as if the court’s cantilevered portico is lacking columns. For whatever reason, the original building did not include them. After a fire in 1911 gutted the building columns were indeed added when the court was rebuilt. But when it was appropriated by Colonial Williamsburg and restored to its 18th century appearance the columns were again dispatched.
northeast corner of Palace Green and Duke of Gloucester Street
James Geddy, a silversmith, constructed this frame building around 1762 to serve as his home and his workshop - a typical arrangement found on 18th century Williamsburg streets. Much of the original L-shaped structure remains, although it picked up a few fashionable 19th century alterations on its exterior.
Bruton Parish Episcopal Church
331 West Duke of Gloucester Street at Palace Green
The church and state were one under the Church of England in the colony of Virginia when the mellow red brick Bruton Parish Church was raised in 1712-1715 to replace an earlier church on this spot. Bruton Parish was created in 1674 through the union of two earlier parishes. Above the cornice of the square tower rises a two-tiered octagonal steeple. This is the oldest Episcopal church of uninterrupted use in America. The churchyard has been the Bruton Parish ground since the 17th century. In addition to the gravestones, there are hundreds of unmarked burials since only the wealthy cold afford the remembrance of a stone marker imported from England. Bruton Parish boasts one of the finest collections of table tombs - the large, raised stones that are symbols of family power - in the United States.
428 West Duke of Gloucester Street, Merchant Square
Thanks to an open-air stage for performances by the Williamsburg Company of Comedians in 1716 on the Palace Green called the Play Booth Theater, Williamsburg lays claim to being the birthplace of the American theater. When Colonial Williamsburg was being developed in the 1930s this 600-seat theater was built to be the “center stage” for the new Merchants Square. John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s film distribution company, RKO, picked up the construction tab for the Williamsburg Theatre. It was one of the first movie houses in the country to be air-conditioned when it opened in 1933. Rockefeller was a regular patron and the back row was reserved for him. With a $3.5 million donation by Bill and Gretchen Kimball the stage was renovated in 2001 and today hosts films, live shows and musical concerts.
CONTINUE STRAIGHT ACROSS BOUNDARY STREET ONTO THE CAMPUS OF WILLIAM & MARY. THE BUILDING DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF YOU IS...
College of William and Mary
William and Mary is the second oldest college in the United States, behind only Harvard, and this is the oldest academic structure still in use in the country. The building was erected beginning in 1695, perhaps based on plans by Sir Christopher Wren, the Royal architect who rebuilt London after the Great Fire of 1666. Although his involvement is disputed 300 years later, if Wren did design the College Building, as it is formally known, it is his only building in America. The building burned in 1705, 1859 and 1862 and was rebuilt each time and when a restoration was undertaken in 1928 the original walls were still intact. The sandy pink brick of the long rectangular mass is set in courses of Flemish and English bond. A steep hip roof above two full stories is pierced by 12 dormers and surmounted by a plain cupola between two huge chimneys near the ends.
TO YOUR RIGHT IS...
College of William Mary
This five-bay Georgian house with a steeply hipped roof house pierced by dormers brought a symmetrical completion to the original campus of the College of William and Mary when it was completed in 1733. Every college president, save one, has resided in this house. During the American Revolution, British General Cornwallis occupied the house briefly in 1781, and later that year French soldiers camping in the area burned the President’s house by accident; King Louis XVI picked up the bill for the repairs.
TO YOUR LEFT IS...
College of William and Mary
William and Mary’s 1693 charter included a commitment to train young Native Americans as Christian clergymen and missionaries to their people. Investment income from a ?4,000 fund from the estate of English natural philosopher Robert Boyle (the Yorkshire manor of Brafferton) was earmarked for an endowment in 1697 and this squarish Georgian brick building was constructed in 1723 to house the Indian School. There were seldom more than a handful of students, however, and the school was shuttered in 1779. Of the three original college buildings, it is the only one never to have been burned.
TURN AND LEAVE WILLIAM & MARY AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON DUKE OF GLOUCESTER STREET. AT PALACE GREEN TURN LEFT.
west side of Palace Green, south of Prince George Street
This two-story Georgian brick house laid in Flemish bond, was built around 1750 and occupied by George Wythe, a former clerk of the House of Burgesses and ardent patriot. Wythe as a brilliant thinker and signer of the Declaration of Independence, but his greatest fame came after the Revolution, when he gained acclaim as the first professor of law at an American college. A roster of his students who rose to national prominence include Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Marshall and Henry Clay. Wythe lived into his 80th year when he was poisoned by a grandnephew in 1806. The murderer escaped conviction, however, when the testimony of the only witness was considered invalid in the courts. The witness was black, to whom the rights fought for in the Revolution did not extend. The house is believed to have been designed in the mid-1750s by Wythe’s father-in-law, the surveyor, builder, and planter Richard Taliaferro.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT ON PALACE GREEN.