You didn’t think I’d take a trip to Virginia without stopping at the crown jewel of American open air museums, did you?
Funny enough, I had never been here before except for a quick drive by when I was super young. There are several catalysts that led me to this blog, and one was an article about tourism at Colonial Williamsburg and how historic attractions just aren’t pulling the crowds they used to. I’m making this a two(three?)-parter because the significance of the site really resonated with me and everything I’m working towards.
Colonial Williamsburg is the quintessential American “open air museum”, and is my point of reference when explaining this blog’s objectives to those that may not be familiar with the term. In my travels I’ve found that the term is used generously and can encompass many things, but CW is the most famous American example of historic immersion and large scale preservation. It also depicts the foundation of the United States and explores a time period that Americans are regularly exposed to in schools.
Williamsburg is the original capital of Colonial Virginia and was used for 81 years as the center of all government and culture in the 18th century. Every significant historical figure during the infancy of the USA came through here at some point, and its relationship with nearby College of William and Mary nurtured its prosperity. During the Revolutionary War Thomas Jefferson moved the capitol to Richmond, a much safer city, and Williamsburg began a gradual stagnation and deterioration.
In 1923, Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin returned to his hometown of Williamsburg to be the rector of the (still functioning!) Bruton Parish church. The state of the crumbling colonial buildings bummed him out, so he set off in a quest to drum up support to save the historic district. With the involvement of the Association for Preservation of VA Antiquities group and John D. Rockefeller, Goodwin started to make significant progress. With Rockefeller’s help, they quietly began buying structures in the area with the intention of preserving their heritage and creating a destination attraction.
Of the 500 buildings in the collection, only 88 are original…although technically some may lean more towards being a reconstruction. Original foundations, illustrations, and blueprints were used during the restoration of CW, creating an accurate interpretation of a colonial city in a young United States. Land surrounding the site was protected from development, and today it’s one of Virginia’s largest tourist attractions.
The place is massive. I allotted myself a full day to soak it all up and felt like I missed a lot, so it’s no wonder that the Visitor’s Center encourages multiple day passes. I was a little put off by the price of admission, but it just so happens that you don’t have to pay to walk through the grounds. I will definitely visit again and take this route next time. Your admission gets you into toured buildings and various trade recreations, so it’s certainly worth it to get the full experience.
Going in the middle of July was unavoidable, and man was it disgustingly hot. Luckily almost all of the buildings have AC, so walking from spot to spot isn’t so terrible if you know you’ve got some cool air ahead of you. I can only imagine what costumed docents must go through in all those historically accurate layers.
The buildings are close together, and the Duke of Gloucester street runs down the center of “town”. You’ll quickly get swept away because of the sheer size of the place and the abundance of things to see. If you’re feeling extra giddy and have children, you can rent costumes and let them play the part. Not sure about adult sizes, but there are enough historical re-enactors out there that people come in their own costumes. Why not? Then you’ll really feel like you’re back in time!
CW is a very well run OAM with a revolving door of programs, educational initiatives, and seasonal events. Docents are well informed and in character, and the interiors are wonderfully furnished and recreated. Here and there you’ll find a docent pointing out an original artifact from Williamsburg, but the majority of objects are recreations in place to help tell the story (still very neat!).
It goes without saying that you’ll be doing a lot of walking, although a shuttle does operate to move guests to key locations around the grounds. I didn’t notice any wheelchair accessible ramps, but my attention was so overwhelmed by the sights that I may have missed them. Many of the buildings didn’t seem to have this accommodation due to their age. There weren’t many water fountains around, which was a bummer, and I couldn’t refill my water bottle at a soda fountain in a few locations. Didn’t see any recycling bins either, but maybe there’s something I don’t know about VA’s recycling policies.
I’m inclined to say that CW is the premier cultural destination in the US of its kind, and the time period is the foundation to the origin story of the country. If you’re on a history tour, it’s a no brainer and well worth your time!
In my next entry I’ll dig a little deeper into the buildings and living history recreation…and then maybe a “Historic Eats” edition!