Dramatic makeover underway at Colonial Williamsburg's Governor's Palace

Even before Colonial Williamsburg opened its newly reconstructed Governor’s Palace in April 1934, the landmark building was intended to rank as one of the Historic Area’s cornerstone attractions.

No place loomed larger in the mind of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller II when he began trying to visualize the restoration of Virginia’s colonial capital in the late 1920s — or demanded more attention from the small army of architects, archaeologists and historians charged with carrying out what became a milestone in the early days of historic preservation.

Yet nearly 84 years after the first visitors walked into the palace’s imposing entrance hall, the 21st-century successors to that pioneering generation of preservationists are making a dramatic change to one of the structure’s most iconic spaces.

Building upon revisions that began under former chief curator Graham Hood in 1981 — and which turned up decisive new evidence more than a decade ago — they’re preparing to transform the palace’s famously imposing display of muskets, pistols and swords through a radical makeover of the walnut paneling that has provided such a dark, evocative backdrop to this statement of imperial power.

Instead, a new, meticulously documented coat of cream-colored paint will cover the walls from floor to ceiling — reshaping the renowned space in ways that conform with all known evidence of similar arms displays in 1700s Great Britain.

“One of the most amazing things about Colonial Williamsburg is that we’re constantly asking questions — even about decisions we’ve made in the past — and we’re willing to make changes like this when we find out we were wrong,” said director of architectural preservation and restoration Matt Webster.

“We know this space was designed for an arms display. We know what they’re supposed to look like — and we can’t find a single period example that doesn’t look like this will look when we’re done. If we ignore that evidence, we’ve failed.”

Dearth of clues

Constructed in the early 1700s, the Governor’s Palace — like nearby Bruton Parish Church — incorporates numerous features reflecting the influence of Virginia Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood.

A former military man who was keenly familiar with various arms displays mounted in the great houses and government buildings of Great Britain, he played a critical role in making sure that the entrance hall of the palace was designed, built and furnished in a way that would impress its visitors with the crown’s martial power.

“It was a living, breathing arms storage system — and it all came down and was used by the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War,” CW Curator Erik Goldstein says, describing a space that could accommodate hundreds of edged weapons and firearms.

“But it also was meant to send a message about imperial might to anyone who walked through the front door.”

Two important records document the extent of the display, the first an inventory following the end of the administration of Gov. Lord Botetourt and the second an inventory made after the abrupt departure of Gov. Lord Dunmore at the start of the Revolutionary War.

Yet while they provide good hard numbers about the quantity and type of arms mounted in the entrance hall, they offer no insights about the space or how it was constructed.

That’s one reason why the pioneering archaeologists who excavated the site in 1930 paid unusual attention to the artifacts they found despite their primary focus on probing for, measuring and mapping the surviving brick-and-mortar architectural features of the structure, which was destroyed by fire in December 1781.

“They saved 50 crates of artifacts,” CW archaeologist Meredith Poole says, “and that helped inform a much more accurate reconstruction.

“But they weren’t as precise about where things came from and what that context could mean as we are today.”

Among the finds was a burned fragment of wood that — because of the lack of other evidence — provided the palace’s architects with the basis for the walnut paneling, window casings, door surrounds and cornice work installed in the structure’s entrance hall.

By the 1950s, the story of that artifact had been embellished to include multiple pieces of wood and certain identification as paneling, Webster says.

But by then the original fragment had been lost, leaving no way for later generations of CW preservationists to assess its value as evidence.

“It all goes back to this single burnt fragment of wood — supposedly walnut — that was found during the excavation of the basement beneath the palace ballroom,” Webster says, describing a space added to the north of the original structure in the 1750s.

“It had a profile. It was some sort of decorative element. But whether it was a piece of furniture or an architectural element isn’t known.

“There was no other evidence, so they took the only thing they had.”

Revising the past

Though the dark walnut entrance hall sported various displays of arms from the beginning, most of them represented no more than “a kind of hodge-podge,” Goldstein says.

Not until the dramatic makeover of the palace orchestrated by Hood and his staff between 1979 and ‘81 did the foundation make its “first real attempt at recreating the formal arms display we know was here,” he adds.

“And if you ask me, the palace was incomplete until then.”

Though visually imposing — especially with its ceiling-mounted wheel of some 60 muskets — the new installation also had shortcomings that became increasingly apparent as new evidence emerged over time.

By the early 2000s, Hood’s successor, Ronald L. Hurst — who had taken part in the original revision campaign — was asking his staff to revisit the evidence, resulting in numerous relatively minor changes at first but also setting the stage for the current much more radical transformation.

“The quantities and types of the arms on display were wrong. The way in which they were configured was wrong. The way we hung them on the wall was wrong,” Goldstein says, explaining a new assessment based on a closer study of the surviving period displays as well as period illustrations.

“We actually went out and made exact copies of the sword hooks and musket pegs we found in the display at Hampton Court in order to be more accurate.”

Deferred until now, however, was the dramatic change of color, which will shift from the moody dark brown of the walnut to a well-documented 1700s hue like the light-cream paint already found in the palace’s dining room.

That’s the same or similar color found at Hampton Court and several other surviving displays as well as the spaces depicted in numerous period illustrations.

“We knew back then that they didn’t put dark gunstocks against a dark walnut background. They disappear into the shadows when you do that — and the whole point of these displays is to show these weapons off,” Webster says.

“When we’re done, the paint will actually highlight the architectural elements better because of the shadow lines cast by the profiles. It will make the pilasters pop. It will make the cornice pop. And it will unify these architectural elements with the arms display in a way that’s not only much more accurate but also more powerful.”

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

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