Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

views updated May 14 2018

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

P.O. Box 1776
Williamsburg, Virginia 23187-1776
Telephone: (757) 220-7286
Toll Free: (800) HIS-TORY
Fax: (757) 220-7325
Web site:

Non-Profit Company
Employees: 3,500
Sales: $193.8 million (2000)
NAIC: 712110 Museums; 712120 Historical Sites; 721110 Hotels (Except Casino Hotels)and Motels; 722110 Full-Service Restaurants

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation operates the oldest and largest (174 acres) outdoor living history museum in the United States. With 88 original and more than 50 restored historic structures, Colonial Williamsburg is often considered the epitome of the historic preservation movement. More than a million people visit Colonial Williamsburg every year. Created in the 1920s and 1930s, Colonial Williamsburg is the ancestor of all American theme parks.

Patriotic Origins

Williamsburg, named after King William III of England, was the capital of the Virginia colony from 1699 to 1780. Its orderly streets were laid out by Royal Governor Francis Nicholson. Before Thomas Jefferson relocated the Virginia capital from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1781, he and other patriots, including George Washington and Patrick Henry, frequented its streets. Williamsburg was the cultural, social, and political center of the colonial world. It is home to the second oldest college in the United States, the College of William and MaryJeffersons alma mater.

The leader of the movement to restore this city to a pre-revolutionary grandeur was Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin, the rector of Williamsburgs Bruton Parish Church and religion professor at the College of William and Mary. He unsuccessfully approached Henry Ford before finding a sponsor, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. By various accounts, Williamsburg was one of his most rewarding projects. He would also leave it a $60 million endowment.

The reconstruction or restoration of Colonial Williamsburg began in 1926. The project was organized in 1928 as two corporations. Colonial Williamsburg, Incorporated had a historical and educational mission and owned designated historic properties. The Williamsburg Holding Company was in charge of the construction, maintenance, and management of the project. It also owned and operated commercial properties. Williamsburg Holding was renamed Williamsburg Restoration, Incorporated in 1934.

Work on the landscaping began in 1931. The restored gardens, designed by Arthur Shurcliff, inaugurated the revival, though later archeological discoveries proved them too flowery to be considered truly authentic. The holly maze in the gardens at the Governors Palace, while lacking in historical evidence, has nevertheless proved to be enormously popular with visitors.

Colonial Williamsburg Opens in 1932

The museum opened in 1932 with about 100 employees. Six appealshistory, research, gardens, trades, collections, and architecturewere to attract the American public. The Raleigh Tavern also opened in 1932, its hostesses dressed in colonial clothes (they were paid between 30 and 40 cents an hour). The practice of costumed interpreters plying 18th-century crafts began in 1936 with a blacksmith hammering out horseshoes for souvenirs. Attendance steadily grew: 31,000 people visited the park in 1934; this figure more than tripled in the next two years.

Williamsburg was chosen for restoration because its downtown area had been less developed than those of Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities with patriotic associations. Nevertheless, more than 450 modern buildings were demolished in the first nine years of its restoration. By 1937, an estimated $14 million and five million man-hours had been spent on the project.

Although rooted in the past, Colonial Williamsburg was already beginning to show a sense of business innovation. One source described its licensing program, which began in the 1930s, as the oldest city in the country. Buffalo, New Yorks Kittinger Co. Inc. began reproducing furniture from Colonial Williamsburgs collection in 1936. (It lost the license to Baker Furniture Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1990.)

Colonial Williamsburg had more than 1100 employees at the dawn of the 1950s. Employment exceeded 1,800 by the close of the decade, when operating revenues were $9.6 million. Hostesses wages were approaching $2 an hour in the 1960s; mostly married women held this prestigious job.

Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg numbered 600,000 visitors in 1952; more than half paid for admission to the historic buildings. The visitor count exceeded one million by 1957 as Colonial Wiliamsburg rose to national prominence as a family tourist destination. In the 1960s, CWF acquired Carters Grove, a nearby 18th-century plantation, from Archibald and Mollie McCrea. The house at Carters Grove is maintained as an example of the Colonial Revival of the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1969, in order to head off the development of nearby parasitic businesses such as low-rent pottery warehouses, CWF sold the Anheuser-Busch Corporation much of the Carters Grove land. This would become the site of Busch Gardens, a bona fide amusement park with few historical aspirations, as well as the upscale planned community of Fords Colony.

CWF Formed 1970

Colonial Williamsburg, Incorporated and Williamsburg Restoration, Incorporated merged in 1970 to form the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Colonial Williamsburg had 1.4 million visitors in 1971 when operating revenues were nearly $26 million. The number of employees soon reached 3,500.

A licensing agreement circa 1971 allowed Wedgwood to reproduce a historic plate. Colonial Williamsburg Co. was the for-profit company that supported the foundation through such deals.

Operating revenues were $46.3 million in 1976. In the previous fifty years, the Rockefeller family had given Colonial Williamsburg $100 million. However, rising costs edged CWF into massive operating deficits. Like other tourist attractions, Colonial Williamsburg suffered during the gasoline shortages of the 1970s.

In the mid-1970s, CWF began to look beyond its endowment and its admission, hotel, and restaurant sales for financial sustenance. It solicited individuals and corporations for support, much like a private college; CWF recruited Roger Thaler, an attorney from Duke University, who led the fund raising effort.

In 1976, Readers Digest founders DeWitt and Lila Bell Wallace gave CWF $5 million to fund the De Witt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery, which opened in 1984. To meet the requirement that only 18th-century buildings be visible, the 85,000-square-foot gallery was built almost entirely underground (the half story above ground was hidden behind the Public Hospital). The Wallaces philanthropy was not limited to one building. They sponsored the restoration of the Public Hospital, and in 1981 they established the Wallace Fund for Colonial Williamsburg to provide annual operating funds for CWFs museums and educational programs. In 2001, the New York attorney general dissolved this fund, transferring $60 million of Readers Digest Association Inc. stock and other assets directly to CWF.

Improving in the 1980s and 1990s

Revenues reached $64.4 million in 1981. A separate hospitality subsidiary, Colonial Williamsburg Hotel Properties, Incorporated, was formed in 1983 to operate the hotels and restaurants.

CWF launched a $75 million capital improvement program in the mid-1980s, its first in more than 25 years. This included restoration of a historic public hospital (the first mental hospital in the United States), a blacksmith shop, and a tavern; the addition of hotel rooms; and an update of the telephone and hotel reservation systems.

At the time, Colonial Williamsburg employed about 2,800 people, plus another 1,200 seasonal workers during the summer. In 1986, CWF had overall revenues of $97 million derived from ticket sales ($18 million), hotels, several restaurants, publishing ventures, reproduction furniture sales, and the Merchants Square shopping center. The Wallace Fund, which was worth $159 million, produced $18.8 million in interest income; donations accounted for $8.3 million of revenues.

Revenues were $136.1 million in 1994. Colonial Williamsburg had 3,500 employees in the mid-1990s, nearly double the towns Revolutionary period population. Some of these were historical interpretersguides dressed in period garb. Some performed 18th-century trades in authentic shops, selling wares such as candles. Colonial Williamsburg pitched a variety of modern merchandise ranging from furniture to Christmas CDs at on-site gift shops and in a glossy catalog with a circulation of more than one million.

However, attendance was declining as the number of competing destinations multiplied. With the help of a Richmond advertising agency, Just Partners, CWF aired a series of TV ads that parodied the famous Im going to Disneyland commercials with historical figures like Patrick Henry instead of celebrity jocks.

Company Perspectives:

Our mission: To help the future learn from the past by preserving and restoring eighteenth-century Williamsburg and by engaging, informing, and inspiring people as they learn about this historic colonial capital, the events that occurred here, and the diverse peoples who helped shape our new nation.

In 1998, CWF posted its first surplus since 1990. Still, at 940,000 visitors a year, attendance was down 25 percent from its peak of 1.2 million in 1988. CWF was partnering with nearby attractions like Busch Gardens to help pitch the Hampton Roads area as a family tourist destination in competition with Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Disney World. The foundation was also proposing to close Colonial Williamsburgs streets to those not purchasing a one day ($25), two-day ($29), or ($33) season pass, which allowed holders to visit most indoor exhibits. However, this proved legally unworkable, since these streets were in fact public property.

The dramatic Enslaving Virginia program, launched in March 1999, brought Colonial Williamsburg unprecedented worldwide media attention. In the preceding years, more attention had been placed on representing the lives of all strata of colonial society. A slave market had been restored five years earlier, and slave quarters were recreated at Carters Grove in 1989.

75th Anniversary in 2001

Colonial Williamsburg celebrated its 75th anniversary throughout 2001 and 2002. In early 2002, CWF began offering schools electronic field trips produced in its new TV studio.

The New York Times reported that CWF and other nonprofits were attending licensing trade shows alongside Hollywood studios and large corporations. During the year, the foundation licensed blueprints to some of its buildings to Wilmington, North Carolina, home designer William E. Poole. CWFs total licensing incomefrom 4,000 different productswas about $10 million a year. The brand had been extended into two furniture lines: the reproduction-oriented Reserve Collection and the more modern line called Pure, Simple, Today. Lane Home Furnishings was the partner in this venture.

Principal Subsidiaries

Colonial Williamsburg Co.; Colonial Williamsburg Hotel Properties Inc.

Principal Competitors

Busch Gardens; Old Salem; Plimoth Plantation, Inc.; Walt Disney Parks & Resorts; Six Flags, Inc.

Key Dates:

Restoration of Williamsburg begins.
Museum opens to the public.
Visitors per year exceeds one million.
Colonial Williamsburg, Inc. and Williamsburg Restoration, Inc. merge to form the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
CWF expands fund-raising effort.
A hotel subsidiary formed.
Enslaving Virginia exhibit garners unprecedented publicity.

Further Reading

Ashenburg, Katherine, Williamsburg Rethinks History, New York Times, September 24, 2000.

Barnes, Julian E., Nonprofits Expand Their Universe of Products, New York Times, June 13, 2001, p. C1.

Buchanan, Lee, Lane to Roll Out Williamsburg Collection; Licensing Program Also Includes Accessories, Lighting, Rugs, HFN, June 7, 1999, p. 19.

Buchanan, Patricia, Marketing 1000: Janet Kane, Advertising Age, October 8, 2001, p. 41.

Campbell, Helen J., Diary of a Williamsburg Hostess, New York: Putnam, 1946.

Campbell, Tom, Kittinger Loses Prestigious Line of Furniture, Business First of Buffalo, June 25, 1990, pp. If.

Cohn, Meredith, Colonial Williamsburg CEO to Leave in June, Virginian-Pilot, March 5, 1999, p. D3.

Gattuso, Greg, Back to the Future, Direct Marketing, December 1993, p. 32.

Goodwin, W.A.R., The Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, National Geographic Magazine, April 1937, pp. 402-43.

Greenspan, Anders, Creating Colonial Williamsburg, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Handler, Richard and Eric Gable, The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Huxtable, Ada Louise, The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, New York: New Press, 1997.

Kopper, Philip, Colonial Williamsburg, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986.

McCaffrey, Meg, American History Redux Via Virtual Field Trips, School Library Journal, April 2002, p. 32.

Straszheim, Deborah, Blacks at Colonial Williamsburg Say They Feel Like Slaves, Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, September 8, 1999.

Whitson, Brian, Developer Bases New Residence Patterns on Historic Williamsburg, Va. Houses, Daily Press (Newport News), June 19, 2001.

Williamsburg Hotels, Restaurants Lose Money; Some Funds Help Support Nonprofit Foundation, Roanoke Times, June 16, 1997, p. C3.

Williamsburg Officials Wary of Closing Area to Public But They Are Still Willing to Consider Limiting Access to the Historic Streets, Virginian-Pilot, May 24, 1997, p. B2.

Williamsburg Would Not Be Alone in Charging to Enter Historic Area, Virginian-Pilot, May 25, 1997, p. B5.

Frederick C. Ingram

Williamsburg, Colonial

views updated May 11 2018


WILLIAMSBURG, COLONIAL. Originally known as the Middle Plantation, the city of Williamsburg was a planned community from its origin. In October 1693, the Virginia General Assembly designated the Middle Plantation as the site for the "free school and college" of William and Mary, and after the state house in Jamestown burned to the ground in October 1698, the Middle Plantation became the seat of government. Named Williamsburg, in honor of King William III, the city included many new innovations. A 1699 act of the Virginia General Assembly divided the city into half-acre lots, with a directive that no house could be built within six feet of the main street, known as Duke of Gloucester Street. This act called for the creation of a brick capitol building, the first in the American colonies, so that the governor and General Assembly could be housed in Williamsburg, as well as the construction of a brick prison. The city progressed quickly in the early years of the governorship of Alexander Spotswood, and in May 1722, the city of Williamsburg incorporated. As a result, the mayor, recorder, and aldermen were designated as justices of peace within the city limits and were empowered to hold a monthly hustings court. In addition, one delegate could be sent to the House of Burgesses, provided his estate was worth two hundred pounds sterling if he were a Williamsburg resident, or five hundred pounds sterling if he were not. The original Williamsburg charter vested power in the hands of each corporation, such as the mayor or aldermen, yet the charter called for a division of powers between each group.

During the eighteenth century, Williamsburg became a major capital city, and played a role in the events leading to the American Revolution. On 30 May 1765, Patrick Henry spoke his famous words, "if this be treason, make the most of it" in denouncing the Stamp Act. Although the British Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, Virginia led the way in uniting the colonies in resisting British encroachments on the rights of person and property. Williamsburg also was at the forefront of industrialization, creating a factory for making woolen and linen cloth, as well as a tannery, carriage factory, wig factory, and snuff mill. In addition to the College of William and Mary, various schools, including schools exclusively for young women and African Americans, were established, and these continued in some form even during the Revolutionary War. In 1780, the state capital moved to Richmond, and Williamsburg once again became a rural county seat; the population dropped by about one-third to about 1,300.

Restoration in the Twentieth Century

The idea of re-creating the town of Williamsburg originated with W. A. R. Goodwin, a local minister, who requested assistance from Henry Ford, boldly asking Ford to underwrite the cost of restoring the town where George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry had lived and worked. When Ford did not respond, Goodwin approached John D. Rockefeller, who authorized Goodwin to purchase property in the town anonymously. Using 1790 as a cut-off date, Rockefeller had 720 buildings constructed after 1790 demolished and had eighty-two eighteenth-century buildings restored. The Rockefeller crew also rebuilt 341 buildings whose foundations remained. Completed in the mid-1930s, the Williamsburg reconstruction cost approximately $79 million.

Ignoring and Restoring History

The town only restored the society of the planter elite—no reference was made to the black half of the city's eighteenth-century population, the half that had been slaves. Rockefeller appeared to have chosen to ignore that portion of American colonial history.

In 1939, Rockefeller became the chairman of the board of Colonial Williamsburg and called for an aggressive public relations campaign. He brought troops to Williamsburg during World War II as inspiration to the city's residents. In the 1950s, Williamsburg expanded its public relations campaign in an attempt to attract visitors; the city brought foreign students and held workshops on democracy. During the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower (1953–1961) in particular, Williamsburg became the customary arrival point for heads of state on their way to Washington, D.C. However, a tour through Colonial Williamsburg remained a tour through the history of white America, and the sight of a "slave" was rare. During the 1950s, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation restricted the jobs available to African Americans and allowed blacks to visit as paying customers on only one day a week. Three decades later, Colonial Williamsburg was ridiculed for having ignored history while concentrating on the resort quality of the town. In 1982, the city responded to criticism of its focus on elites and the "stopped in-time" quality of the town by adding slavery to the portrayal of colonial life. Colonial Williamsburg stopped short, however, of tackling the relationship between blacks and whites. Very little attention was paid to the institution of slavery until, on 10 October 1994, a slave auction was re-enacted as a part of the celebrations of the accession of George III to the throne. The 1994 summer programs had also included slave marriage re-enactments. The 1994 "slave auction" drew an initial crowd of two thousand to Duke of Gloucester Street for the re-enactment of the sale of four slaves during an estate auction. The NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference protested this auction and attempted to cancel the re-enactment. However, once the controversy had somewhat died down, it became clear that programming like this was needed. In March 1999, programming entitled "Enslaving Virginia" began, with African Americans making up nearly 10 percent of the almost six hundred living history reenactors in Colonial Williamsburg.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, the city of Williamsburg covered nine square miles, and was a thriving business and cultural center. With both the College of William and Mary and Colonial Williamsburg, the city attracts over one million visitors each year.


Cutler, William W. "Cultural Literacy, Historic Preservation, and Commemoration: Some Thoughts for Educational Historians." History of Education Quarterly 4 (2000): 477–482.

Hood, Graham. The Governor's Palace in Williamsburg: A Cultural Study. Williamsburg, Va.: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1991.

Tyler, Lyon Gardiner. Williamsburg: The Old Colonial Capital. Richmond, Va.: Whittet and Shepperson, 1907.

Wallace, Mike. Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory. Philadephia: Temple University Press, 1996.


See alsoSlave Trade ; Slavery ; William and Mary, College of .

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