Thank Goodness for Goodwin …

It is remarkable that a modest desire to preserve the history of a local church in the 1920s led to the preservation of an entire area of historical significance to the United States.  I was struck by Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin’s success with convincing John D Rockefeller to fund the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.  Goodwin had a passionate desire to preserve what he understood as “an appreciation for the town’s socical, cultural, and political history”.  This was also remarkable in that the focus of the country at the time was to “progress” in industry, yet individuals like Rockefeller could see how preservation of history might be both philanthropic and profitable.

A project like Colonial Williamsburg’s restoration beginning in the 1920s was developed with an eye toward making it a kind of adult historical Disneyland.  Rockefeller’s financial backing insured that architects of the highest reputation, like Perry, Shaw & Hepburn of Boston would see to detailed restoration of the initial buildings of importance like the Governor’s Palace, Wren Building and the Capitol.  Goodwin must have been more than a little anxious, but also very excited having day-to-day oversite responsibilities for such a large scale project.  The plans just mushroomed and with Rockefeller money the growth of the project was exponential. A decalogue of resolutions kept the project firmly rooted in the purpose of restoration making sure that only accurate portrayals of Colonial American architecture and interiors were re-created in exacting detail.

The focus and integrity of the entire project came through when I read the essay.  Marketing the project to the public began right from the start. Public relations started with contacting “outside specialists” to join the project who became ambassadors and “talked it up” to the public.  To be sure these were people with a wide sphere of influence and financial means in their communities.

Within a decade of work on the project it was impossible to keep the identity of its benefactor under wraps.  In 1928 it was revealed that Rockefeller money was in the project and the even more companies of the best in the business came forward to work on it.  The beautiful landscaping and gardens around the earliest restorations are the result of the initial work of Arthur A. Shurcliff (1870-1957).

Numerous committess were put in charge of various aspects of preservation.  The capitol site was the beginning of the physical work of the project in 1928 as well as the building itself, folowed by Raleigh Tavern, the Wren Building, and the Governor’s Palace.  Although it was intended that all work continue with attention to careful excavation, Kenneth Chorley, chief administrative officer of the resotration was under time constraints and rushed some of the collection of artifacts or overlooked it entirely.  Concerns that items of interest would be lost caused Rutherford Goodwin to establish and archaeological laboratory.  This lab cleaned, treated and stored many artifacts from the sitework during restoration.

By the 1930s the Governor’s Palace was completed.  The Rockefeller family had Bassett Hall restored and made it a temporary residence for two months out of the year.  The loved being part of the project and I gathered from the article that to some extent they enjoyed relative anonymity in the community when they visited.

Beyond the money to restore the buildings, numerous committees formed around the project in the local community focused on preservation, promotion and educational purposes for the area.  A distinct emphasis on education was put on the table and was the basis for the creation of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation that endures today.  Its purpose was to relate local history of Williamsburg its importance to the United States as a country.  There was intense political pressure to keep Williamsburg in the national spotlight.  Despite the Depression years the restoration continued and in 1934 President Roosevelt visited and claimed the Duke of Gloucester Street, “the most historic avenue in all America” officially announcing Colonial Williamsburg open to the public.

Goodwin’s vision, Rockefeller’s money, the work of hundreds of people literally in the trenches, as well as dedicated experts in the fields of architecture, history and public relations made possible the preservation of a small town that was significant in the Nation’s history.  It is extraordinary that one man during the boom of industrialization and big business in the 1920s connected with the right people to bring such a humble project to fruition.  The preservation of this small town provided future generations with a place to enjoy a break from their hectic lives and travel back in time back to the mid-eighteenth century in America.

3 Responses to “Thank Goodness for Goodwin …”

  1. 1 dcpratt February 1, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Just as Goodwin, Rockefeller and others constructed the Colonial Williamsburg as a representation of history, so too did Taylor “construct” this local history of the Williamsburg restoration. In what ways does this history, as Taylor presents it, align with what Kammen has to say about local history?

  2. 2 Collin Scott February 1, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    As local histories the Taylor and Brown & DeSamper articles reflect a passionate commitment by Goodwin and other influential people to preserving artifacts and architecture that indicate how the area flourished during Colonial times. Like the writers of patrician history wanted “to lure settlers to their communities” as Kammen suggests in his article,”Local History’s Past”,the local historians of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s wanted to create accounts that wwould attract outsiders to the area and thereby ensure economic prosperity for the community for multiple generations.
    Most of the groups involved in the williamsburg restoration projects were people with the money and influence to create a favorable image of the area. They also saw the good in promoting an image of what Kammen noted as “a steady progression from rude beginnings to a contemporary civilized state” which included a reverence for things that showed a patriotic spirit of committment to the Nation and cast the people living in Williamsburg as progressive thinkers.
    The Taylor, and Brown & DeSamper articles detailed an intense desire to portray the history of the area accurately and to that end restoration project leaders engaged only the most reputable agents. However, as Kammen notes, like other local historians, Williamsburg’s historians purposely omitted information that did not cast a favorable light on the city; like the areas treatment of African-Americans. If as Kammen suggests “over time, local history has formed, developed, re-formed, and come of age” then contemporary projects like the Lemon Project will revise the local history and add create a narrative that is closest to early restoration committees intentions to create an authentic historical experience.

  3. 3 sgglos February 15, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    This is excellent, Collin. Much more analytical than the original post. Nice ties to our past readings!

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The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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