Colonial Williamsburg resurfaces decades-old access debate

Build a wall around the city's historic area. It's nothing new, and the issue has been raised several times in the past 40 years. The initial concept, however, originated in January 1974 by the venerable Carlisle H. Humelsine, then long-time president of Colonial Williamsburg.

He contended the closure of additional streets — in addition to Duke of Gloucester Street — to cars, and restriction of people from entering the historic area, would capture important lost revenue. In turn, the visitors' free access experience would be eliminated. Some kind of ticket to Colonial Williamsburg would be required.

Humelsine's proposals immediately became a cause célébre.

Opponents began to rally.

The controversy spread over weeks and months. The locally circulated newspapers — the Virginia Gazette, the Newport News Daily Press and the Richmond Times-Dispatch — covered the incidents over a period of several months. There were letters to the editor suggesting John D. Rockefeller Jr., philanthropist who funded the elaborate restoration, "would turn over in his grave" at the thought of taking away free access to the historic area.

The Daily Press by Feb. 13, 1974 reported a full scale "public relations campaign" was underway that the historic area should be sealed off to non-paying visitors/tourists. The paper noted that Colonial Williamsburg employees and area residents were urged to support the proposal. In addition to generating more revenue, the closure would "increase the appeal and uniqueness of the Historic Area."

City records were researched and the Gazette learned and reported on March 29, 1974 that the sales agreement between the city and Colonial Williamsburg to sell city property in the Historic Area and subsequently two deeds would apparently "foil" Colonial Williamsburg's plan. The 1930 deed read, in part, that Colonial Williamsburg would perpetually preserve and maintain (the parcels) as public parks with free access to the public.

The specifically identified areas included the Palace Green, Market Square Green (identified as Court-House Green) and several parcels of open space adjacent to the Powder Magazine. It also restricted commercial use of the land. Colonial Williamsburg officials acknowledged the documents but asked the city to study the "legal aspects."

Editorially, on March 29, 1974, The Virginia Gazette initially asked City Council to stop and listen to the public outcry over the proposal. A week later, in another editorial, the Gazette wrote: "There has been a lot of shouting lately for someone to rise up and save the town. It now appears it's already been done by our local government — not the one we've got now, but the one we had back in 1930 …

"As of now, an admissions policy that would fence out of town anyone without a ticket appears to be illegal. To try and put one into effect certainly would violate the intentions of those who began the restoration and preservation of this historic city. Not to mention trample the rights of those who live in it today."

As the controversy was playing out, the city was involved in a council-manic election and several candidates went on record opposing Humelsine's plan. As was routine, when council received a letter from Humelsine explaining what Colonial Williamsburg wanted, the proposal was sent to the city Planning Commission to study.

By the May election, however, the controversial climate had abated and the Gazette reported on May 3, 1974 that the issue of "building a wall" around the historic area "died out quickly when all the candidates expressed some form of opposition to the plan."

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