Historic Williamsburg: The Revolutionary City
The largest historical restoration in American history has helped Colonial Williamsburg blossom into the biggest draw among Virginia’s numerous tourist attractions. In fact, the town is called “the Revolutionary City” because 21st century tourists can actually experience the tension in the community as it straddles the divide between staying loyal to the crown or striding toward a new country.
Blessed by a benign climate and travel-friendly location, the town looks and feels like it did more than 300 years ago. In many ways, it is a museum of moving parts. Visitors can watch artisans fashion everything from wigs to horseshoes, hear horsedrawn carriages clatter down Duke of Gloucester Street, listen to fife and drum groups practice in open fields, and ogle men in tri-cornered caps, ruffled shirts and knickers as they argue the merits of independence as vociferously as tourists discuss rival sports teams.
Though streets are devoid of motorized traffic, the colonial district is busy -- potters and blacksmiths are working, gardens seem well-kept and taverns are doing a brisk business. Ox-drawn carts lumber along, giving short but bumpy rides, and street lamps are illuminated by gas instead of electricity -- much as they would have been during Revolutionary times.
Heart of the Historic Triangle
Williamsburg has preserved its legacy so well that it anchors an area locals call “the Historic Triangle.” Along with Jamestown, where Captain John Smith and fellow English settlers landed in 1607, and Yorktown, where George Washington’s 1781 victory over General Cornwallis ended the Revolutionary War, Williamsburg is a living history lesson. Its 301-acre historic district includes nearly 90 structures that survived from colonial times, plus 400 more that have been rebuilt on their original sites.
Originally called Middle Plantation, because it was sandwiched on high ground between the James and York rivers, the town was founded in 1632 as a bulwark against Indian attacks. Renamed Williamsburg (after English King William III), when the colonial capital was relocated from Jamestown 67 years later, it received a the first royal charter in 1722 that was the first given to any city in colonial America, in 1722.
By that time, the College of William & Mary – named for the English monarchs – was already thriving. Only Harvard, founded in 1636, has a longer collegiate legacy than the Williamsburg school, which held its first classes in 1694. William & Mary alumni have included Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler; movie star Meryl Streep, and comedian Jon Stewart.
The billionaire philanthropist, one of the richest men in America, proved instrumental in the nation’s largest historical restoration. Rockefeller’s interest in restoring Colonial Williamsburg began during a visit to the area in 1926. A local minister, the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin had hoped to enlist the oil magnate’s help in restoring his Bruton Parish Church, a decaying colonial structure, but that project eventually expanded to include other 18th century buildings. As a result, Goodwin is remembered as “the father of colonial Williamsburg.”
When Goodwin gave Rockefeller a tour of Bassett Hall, a simple white frame house built before the Revolutionary War, the Standard Oil magnate was so taken that he later purchased the property. Decorated with folk art by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the house belonged to the family from 1936 to 1979, when it was bequeathed to Colonial Williamsburg.
The 2-story house opened for public tours in 1980 but looks even better today, thanks to a 2-year restoration completed in 2002. Unlike most of Colonial Williamsburg, Bassett Hall looks as it does when the Rockefellers stayed there during their semi-annual visits.
The Rockefeller legacy lives on in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, a Williamsburg-based treasure trove of books, images and manuscripts pertaining to the American Colonies, the Revolutionary War and the early history of the United States. Got a question about the House of Burgesses or The Stamp Act? There’s no better resource than the Rockefeller Library.
Relive the History
Virtually every local building – from the 1701 Capitol to the 1773 Public Hospital (the first insane asylum in the colonies) -- is a museum. To decide where to start, head for the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center, where you can watch the orientation movie and consult with the congenial and knowledgeable staff before selecting guided tours that are both time-sensitive and likely to hold the attention of both young and old visitors. You might even encounter an apparition or 2 since nightly, lantern-lit ghost tours are among the options.
While the Rockefeller home is a must-see attraction, so is the Peyton Randolph House, which was built by the Continental Congress member in 1715. The deep red colonial is one of the oldest, most historic and most beautiful of Colonial Williamsburg's original 18th-century homes.
If tavern walls could talk in Colonial Williamsburg, they’d have quite a story to tell. A half-dozen pubs, which doubled as primitive hotels, were once known for rowdy, beer-fueled political arguments about allegiance to England or the alternative. A trip to Williamsburg shows which side won.