Colonial Williamsburg is an irreplaceable part of our nation’s heritage. Here, the early American patriots came together and articulated ideas that would shape a new republic. Even though it has been more than 240 years since Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry made history in Williamsburg, they would still recognize the town, which has been carefully preserved and reconstructed where necessary according to the original 18th-century city plan.
Since 1926, when the Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller Jr. first collaborated to restore the colonial city, it has been the Foundation’s goal to ensure the Historic Area offers an accurate portrait of 18th-century life in the Revolutionary capital. Archaeologists, historians and architects ensure that every garden, home, trade shop and outbuilding is maintained with extraordinary attention to detail. We continuously address ongoing preservation challenges that affect the buildings—as well as the fences, walks, gardens and courtyards.
Of the 603 buildings that comprise Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, 88 are original to the town; several hundred others incorporate original materials. Our 20th-century reconstructions are approaching antique status in their own right. All are unique, non-renewable resources, and their maintenance is a top priority. A building in disrepair may be restored beautifully, but—without careful preservation—the wealth of information ingrained in its wood, plaster, brick and paint will be lost to time.
Essential upkeep like window cleaning, plaster repairs and basic carpentry is carried out year-round in the Historic Area. Every two to three years, most exhibition buildings close briefly as painters, carpenters, electricians and plumbers collaborate with curators, conservators and art handlers to perform essential preventive maintenance. This critical work takes place in addition to special projects like the restoration of the Governor’s Palace entry hall and emergent repairs to brickwork, paint and plaster throughout the Historic Area.
As part of our efforts, architectural conservators and historic tradespeople conduct research to identify the most sustainable methods to maintain our historic buildings and landscapes—and have found that the old ways are usually the best. Though it can be time consuming and costly, we are committed to using authentic tools, materials and methods mastered by our historic tradespeople to assure the long-term structural stability of our architectural resources. The more we invest in historic preservation, the more we learn about and implement historically accurate and long-lasting repairs—reducing the overall cost of our preservation program and improving the efficacy of our efforts in the long term.
In recent years, we have adjusted our approach to preserving and restoring brickwork and masonry. During the first 50 years of the Restoration, Portland cement was employed to repair Williamsburg’s 18th-century brickwork. We have learned since that the cement—much harder and less porous than historical mortar—does not accommodate daily temperature and humidity fluctuations, eventually causing the bricks to break up under pressure.
This kind of damage has resulted in crumbling chimneys and unstable foundations. Nowadays, we are making our own mortar, using lime created by burning oyster shells, to lay handmade bricks as we repair 18th-century architectural remains and reconstruct those that have been lost. Because we are using these period materials, it is likely that the brickwork we complete today will last for a century or more.
Another one of our most important avenues for research in historic preservation—as well as one of our most critical areas of need—is paint. Not only does the paint on our buildings and fences help us establish a picturesque town, but it also serves as a historic building’s first line of defense against weather and time. Wood with an old or peeling coat of paint deteriorates rapidly, threatening the stability of structures throughout the city. We must paint 60 buildings on average every year simply to maintain the more than 600 structures onsite.
These remarkable architectural resources that we work tirelessly to preserve—from taverns and homes to government buildings and stables—were the backdrop for some of the most momentous decisions in American history. For that, they are worthy of preservation in their own right. But let us not forget that today they also provide an incomparable setting for educational offerings that surpasses even the best classroom. History lovers and students of all ages come to Williamsburg to explore our nation’s story through hands-on sensory experiences that allow them to envision the Historic Area’s bustling streets just as they would have appeared to our forebears who lived, worked, struggled and celebrated here.
In 2018 preventative maintenance work was completed at the following locations: Governor’s Palace complex, Capitol complex, Tarpley and Thompson Store, Wetherburn’s complex, Gateway Building, Charlton Coffeehouse, Brickyard, Ayscough complex, Public Gaol, Shoemaker’s Shop, Taliaferro-Cole Shop, Booker Tenement and Durfey Shop.
Maintenance crews completed each of the masonry projects scheduled for 2018, including the Custis Kitchen, Edinburgh Castle, Lime Kiln, Palmer House, Greenhow Tenement and John Crump Kitchen.
The largest project completed in 2018 was the restoration of the entry hall in the Governor’s Palace.Our researchers discovered the walls showcasing weapons would have been a light, bright color. Similar work was done in the stairway in January 2019.
Crews completed the 71 painting projects planned for last year, and we repaired 11 Historic Area roofs in 2018. Additionally, the pump house was moved at the Market House and cyclical preventative maintenance work was completed at 18 sites.
An anonymous donor challenged the Foundation to raise $1 million toward infrastructure needs in 2018, and promised a match. Thanks to the generosity of more than 80 individual donors, the Foundation raised more than $2 million, including the matching gift. The funds will be used to complete many infrastructure projects, including landscaping, building improvements and mechanical systems replacements.