Imagining Colonial Williamsburg: an architect's tale

Architect's vision helped persuade Rockefeller to embrace epic restoration of colonial capital.

When the Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin started puzzling together the pieces needed to restore Virginia's colonial capital in the late 1920s, he was missing much more than money.

His earlier attempt to return Bruton Parish Church to its 1700s appearance had been compromised by his choice of architect J. Stewart Barney, who embellished the original plan with such artful but inappropriate flourishes as arched doorways and a vaulted chancel ceiling.

And Goodwin himself had dressed up the front of the historic Wythe House with eye-catching but out-of-place details inspired by Westover Plantation.

But when the clergyman failed to snare the Chicago architect he wanted for his grand new scheme, fate intervened in a way that had profound consequences for both Colonial Williamsburg and historic preservation.

Turned down again by a prominent Boston figure, Goodwin wrote on Jan. 5, 1927, to another Boston firm, hoping to interest someone who had visited the old capital the previous year.

William G. Perry arrived in Williamsburg eight days later and — despite the mystery cloaking his mission — spent 14 days studying and measuring the College of William and Mary's landmark Wren Building as well as other colonial structures.

The conceptual drawings that resulted during the following 10 months not only ignited the imagination of a previously reluctant John D. Rockefeller Jr. but also set the standard for a new, more rigorous kind of historic preservation.

"Goodwin was the sort of larger imagineer who conceived of restoring Williamsburg in this very general, very broad-brushed way, and Rockefeller was this thoughtful, detail-oriented guy who needed something more," retired CW architectural historian Edward A. Chappell explains.

"So it's not until they hook up with Perry that they finally see how they can do it. He established the evidence-based method that created Colonial Williamsburg."

Lured by the past

Educated at Harvard and the École des Beaux Arts, Perry was a World War I Army aviator stationed in nearby Newport News the first time he felt the lure of Williamsburg.

But despite the weeks he spent at Camp Morrison before shipping out to France in 1917, he couldn't find a way to make the 20-odd-mile trip.

"This golden opportunity to see Williamsburg must not be passed up," he recalled thinking in a 1963 account written for the Boston Globe.

"But, being in the Army, it had to be. There was no transportation."

Not until he and a friend drove back from a January 1926 hunting trip to South Carolina did Perry finally see the "many houses and buildings quietly reminding one of a notable past."

Among them was the abandoned Wythe House off Palace Green, which Perry described as "unfurnished and forlorn."

"It appeared patiently to be awaiting — what?" he later recalled.

"Destruction or reconstruction?"

Returning that May to help recover his friend's disabled car, Perry met Goodwin for the first time and listened with interest to his vision for the town.

But he couldn't help noting the license with which Goodwin was restoring the Wythe House — or the revelation that it was being done with the help of "a decorator from Richmond."

"There are many definitions of restoration," Perry later recalled.

"You might say that his was 'a repair and renovation or representation of the original building in a form best suited to the new uses to which it is to be put, and embodying the embellishment that it is hoped it originally possessed.'

"The definition to which we later harnessed ourselves for Williamsburg was shorter. It is 'a representation of its original form through studied preservation and reconstruction.'"

Bent on evidence

Despite Perry's prompt response to Goodwin's Jan. 5 invitation, he left Boston with serious reservations.

Though Goodwin had finally secured a modest amount of seed money from Rockefeller after some six month of conversations — including a guided tour of the old town — the nature of his support was delicate and uncertain.

"I am committed to nothing, either now or later on," the philanthropist wrote him on Nov. 29, 1926, and even that unpromising pledge had to be wrapped in the strictest secrecy.

That left Perry and his partners deciding whether to take a distant, still tenuous job financed — if at all — by an anonymous sponsor.

"I can remember standing there between the drafting tables, and asking if we should take that kind of chance in our architectural career," he later recalled.

"We took it."

Arriving at noon, Perry set to work with Goodwin immediately, and over lunch they outlined an eight-point plan as well as the standards to be followed.

Early the next morning he visited the College — where the Wren Building was to be the first focus of the proposed restoration — followed by an afternoon drive to Langley Field to ask about getting aerial photos.

Just how Perry overcame Col. Clarence C. Culver's initial resistance isn't known, but the connections he and partner Thomas Mott Shaw had made in the Air Service during the war probably didn't hurt.

Three days later, Perry was back at Langley ironing out the details, his journal notes, and a day after that the 2nd Photo Section began taking pictures.

Long before that, the architect was scouring the Wren Building for details, getting them first through meticulous measurements, then by a dark but revealing crawl on his hands and knees through the unused, debris-filled basement.

"The first thing that my hand reached was a newel post of an early wrought-iron balustrade. There were pottery plates, marked 1694 and 1695, that had never been burned (by the building's many fires)," he later recalled.

"This was old, old ground — new to our generation."

Then there were the surreptitious expeditions he and Goodwin made at night, when they ventured out with a 1781 map to take measurements of the colonial buildings on Duke of Gloucester Street .

"Dr. Goodwin said, 'We mustn't be discovered doing this,'" Perry later recalled.

"So, with a lantern in hand, on several such nights we actually measured the town with a mere 50-foot tape!"

Compelling vision

Armed with his measurements, scores of aerial and ground-level photographs and previous research conducted by Goodwin and his assistant, Elizabeth Hayes, Perry returned to Boston on Jan. 29.

So strong was the impression he'd made on both the clergyman and Rockefeller — who kept abreast of the visit by telegram — that he also took home a $2,500 commission for preliminary sketches to be finished by May.

That's when the wealthy philanthropist visited Williamsburg with his wife and family, embarking on a long and ultimately expensive walk in which they were guided through the town by Goodwin and Hayes along with drawings executed by Perry, Shaw and their partner, Andrew Hopewell Hepburn.

"Goodwin was no architect. He was an amateur whose attempt to restore the Wythe House had brought him some criticism," said Dennis Montgomery, who describes the crucial May 24 walk in his 1998 book, "A Link Among the Days: The Life and Times of the Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, the Father of Colonial Williamsburg."

"So he needed Perry. He needed his vision of what Williamsburg could become. Before that every attempt to gain Rockefeller's support had been fruitless."

Spurred by what he saw, Rockefeller conferred with Goodwin through the afternoon and into the night about a possible agenda for restoring the House of Burgesses, the Governor's Palace and other sites on Duke of Gloucester Street in addition to the Wren Building.

Yet even after authorizing the clergyman to buy several threatened properties — the first since funding the "emergency purchase" of the Ludwell Paradise House the previous December — he remained guarded about a longer commitment, Montgomery writes.

Not until November 1927 did a new set of more refined drawings presented in secret at the Vanderbilt Hotel in New York finally overcome his reluctance to embrace what had unfolded into a landmark historic preservation project.

By then Perry had returned to Williamsburg for a second fact-finding tour, during which he and Hepburn had not only toiled on studies of the Paradise House and proposed town plan but also started sketches of all the colonial buildings on Duke of Gloucester Street.

The partners also had presented their designs to pioneering architect, architectural historian and preservationist Fiske Kimball, marking the first of many occasions in which they sought counsel from the leading figures of a still emerging field.

Ferrying the resulting drawings to the Vanderbilt Hotel was no easy task because of their scale, including a giant town plan that measured 8 feet long.

Struggling to transport them by taxi and mail car from Boston, Perry then had to stand on top of an elevator car in order to get them up to Goodwin's floor.

Asked to wait in his room, Perry received a phone call at 4 p.m. asking if he could develop a solution for moving the town's many businesses out of the historic district.

Working through the night, he delivered the initial sketches for Merchants Square — one of the nation's first shopping centers — early the next morning.

Two weeks passed before Perry and his partners got authorization to go ahead with definitive plans for the Palace, House of Burgesses and Wren Building.

But Goodwin knew almost immediately he had finally secured the financial support he needed after a year of pursuing his elusive patron.

"Goodwin's lawyer met him at the train and reported that he was nearly done with some recent property purchases," Montgomery said.

"And Goodwin looks at him and smiles, saying, 'We haven't even started yet. We're going to buy the whole town.'"

Breaking ground

In some ways Perry and Rockefeller were a perfect match, with the diligent architect striving to provide the detailed information the philanthropist needed to move forward with what became an epic restoration.

"Rockefeller was a pretty careful guy. He would go to the best people he could find to help him with his projects," Chappell said.

"And Perry was there at a critical point to help establish the kind of standards he was looking for — and that would make Colonial Williamsburg a pioneer in historic preservation."

Still, not until April 1928 did the partners finally meet the anonymous figure for whom they had been working for more than a year.

That very same month they assumed the "overall authority and responsibility" for the restoration, ushering in an even greater focus on gathering the evidence needed to rebuild Williamsburg's 18th-century structures as authentically as possible.

To that end, the firm organized a staff of historical researchers who not only studied the town's 1700s structures but also journeyed into the surrounding countryside to find and catalog surviving examples of the region's colonial building traditions.

The infant field of archeology played a major role in gathering clues, too, unearthing indispensable information about the plans and building materials of the Palace, House of Burgesses and Wren Building.

Soon the partners became champions of this new approach, leading to sometimes bitter struggles with other authorities over the restoration of such landmark structures as the Wren Building.

"Nothing was ever done without good reason," Shaw said, explaining why they'd stood so firmly against those wanted to give the college's signature building a more stately and elegant appearance than the evidence showed.

"If there were no documented reasons for doing a particular thing, we didn't do it."

Though later criticized for their own deviations from this evidence-based approach — including Perry's late-1930s clean-up of the original hodge-podge interior at Bruton Parish Church — the firm helped pave the way for the development of the modern historic preservation movement and such benchmarks as the National Park Service's standards for preservation.

"These guys were pioneers — and what they did in Williamsburg defined not only their careers but the whole field of historic preservation," Chappell said.

"Our generation picked up the mantle they left."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

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