The double genesis of Williamsburg is a long-told tale. First, in 1699 Virginians abandoned the small, unhealthy old capital on marshy Jamestown Island to build a better-planned urban capital on the low ridge between the James and York rivers, a town that would be the scene of momentous decisions made by American citizens on the eve of the Revolution. After the seat of government moved to Richmond, the town lay dormant until the 1920s, when the Reverend W. A. R. Goodwin, rector of Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church, convinced John D. Rockefeller, Jr., of the town's potential as a historic site and national shrine. Rockefeller began to purchase and subsequently restore and reconstruct what became the country's most substantial restoration effort. Both stories appealed to the progressive spirit of the 1930s as an American drama, not solely a regional or Virginia one.
Much of Williamsburg's appeal derives from the formality of its arrangement and the relative modesty of its buildings. The town plan is credibly attributed to Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson, then fresh from a capital-planning role in Annapolis. He laid out a wide main street, named for the Duke of Gloucester, stretching nearly a mile, from the College of William and Mary on the west to a site set aside for construction of a statehouse to the east. Nicholson named parallel streets for himself and planned a major cross axis that would focus on the governor's official residence. A large block near the center of town, bisected by Duke of Gloucester Street, was set aside for a market. Roads led from both ends of town to a port on tributaries of the James and York rivers.
Williamsburg reached the density of building now seen in the designated historic area in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. This museum zone represents perhaps 90 percent of the eighteenth-century town. Development along the main street was most congested west of the capitol, though a comparable mixture of taverns, shops, and dwellings extended its length. Most surviving buildings meet the size requirements and the consistent setback called for in the 1699 Town Act. Few of the buildings were attached to one another, however, and the town never had an urban appearance. Several of the most costly residences faced Palace Green, while other elite houses were built around the edges of the town, where estates resembling small plantations developed. Much of the housing was constructed for successful tradesmen in the 1760s and 1770s. Tenants resided in everything from small parts of houses and shops to lavish townsteads. Some of the most refined houses were, in fact, occupied by renters rather than property owners. Slaves lived in parts of virtually every kind of Williamsburg house and work building; very few buildings were constructed solely for the use of house workers.
Some eighteenth-century buildings were destroyed during the American Revolution and the following century, most notably the capitol, the Governor's Palace, and the public hospital, but other public edifices and numerous early houses survived into the twentieth century. Although removal of the state government and the absence of vigorous regional trade decreased development pressures, the town never really slumbered. Costly houses were built and remodeled in the nineteenth century, and both the college and a state mental hospital maintained an institutional life. White and black evangelical congregations built impressive masonry churches in the 1850s, many of which disappeared during the restoration. By the 1920s Duke of Gloucester Street and Williamsburg in general had taken on a look shared by thousands of American towns. Middle-class residential neighborhoods had begun to develop around the central core, and a sizable black community was centered on streets north of Richmond Road and west of Boundary Street. Rich and poor alike continued to occupy the peripheral eighteenth-century streets, and working-class houses were built along Penniman and Yorktown roads, both east of town.
The apparent erosion of old Williamsburg led Goodwin to propose the idea of a restored town. Goodwin and Rockefeller always conceived of Colonial Williamsburg as a portrait of a past community rather than a series of discrete house museums. But the restoration and reconstruction projects were widely dispersed across the city. The number of tourists visiting the town increased rapidly before the first projects were complete, but boundaries were not drawn to demarcate the historic area until 1949, and the streets lacked much sense of continuity until the 1950s.
Between 1928 and the 1960s, Williamsburg developed as a model town within a town. The Boston architecture firm of Perry, Shaw and Hepburn and later the Colonial Williamsburg Department of Architecture designed even the simplest of the museum buildings. First, Perry, Shaw and Hepburn designed Merchants Square (1928–1931), collecting many of the town's businesses into a block of witty historicist buildings at the west end of Duke of Gloucester Street. The style employed there—primarily drawn from American buildings of the early republic—had strong links to the older mode of the historic area but was sufficiently different to be perceptible to educated observers. Modernism came slowly to Williamsburg. Experimentation at the College of William and Mary in 1938–1939 came to naught, but the Rockefeller family's interest in modernism would lead to several post–World War II buildings such as the Visitor Center.
Museum acquisitions in the old part of town and the growth of both Colonial Williamsburg and the college encouraged suburban growth. Before succeeding Harry F. Byrd as governor in 1930, the progressive mayor John Garland Pollard began developing two garden suburb enclaves for college professors and other middle-class whites: Chandler Court and Pollard Park. Post–World War II Williamsburg expanded dramatically in response to a more mobile population, local and otherwise. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation designed, built, and then sold Williamsburg Shopping Center (1955) on Richmond Road as locally oriented businesses moved away from the town center. Racial divisions tended to be more pronounced in the new development than they had been at the town center as late as the 1920s and 1930s. Suburban development has dramatically accelerated since the 1950s. The most orchestrated development has been at Busch Properties' Kingsmill, where land once cultivated by indentured workers and slaves is now the site of resort buildings and housing illustrative of evolution in middle-class American architectural taste since the mid-1970s. The associated Busch Gardens theme park has contributed to the growth of the strips on Virginia 60 east and west.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.