Colonial Williamsburg: It’s History

Wedgwood Chinese Tigers, one of the great patterns from Colonial Williamsburg

Published 2004 on

Just 20 years ago, if you wanted a piece of Colonial Williamsburg, you could go to New York’s Fifth Avenue, where the restored Virginia town had a shop in the genteel department store B. Altman. There, you could select Wedgwood bone China patterns, order a mahogany Chippendale-style highboy chest (custom made by the Kittinger Company of Buffalo, New York), or buy a Queen Anne-style gold leaf and gesso looking-glass. Confused about gesso, Chippendale or Queen Anne? The 300-page Williamsburg Reproductions catalog, a sort of WASP pornography, not only described each item in excruciating detail, but offered up pages upon pages of design ideas as well as a glossary of furniture words like ogge, splat and burl, and a chart of Williamsburg-brand Martin Senour paints.

Today, B. Altman is closed and Kittinger, which went through a round robin of corporate buyouts, is no longer with Williamsburg. For decades, Williamsburg’s licensee was Josiah Wedgwood, the old-line British company that is now Wedgwood Waterford. Today, Wedgwood partners with super-luxury brands like Bulgari and British designers like Basia Zarzycka and Jasper Conran. On the other hand, Williamsburg now sells colonial reproduction plates from China maker Lenox, which partners with Zales, that mall jewelry store. Furniture is not always copied in “excruciating detail,” but instead can come Crate & Barrel-style, made by the Massachusetts company Nichols & Stone. Certainly nice, but a touch more mid-market than before.

The catalog has changed too, everything from tchotchke colonial figurines to pineapple “Welcome” signs that, dare we say it, hint at Lillian Vernon. Table lamps are sold at Lowe’s, the big box hardware store. Online (and on sale for US$ 7.50 at are “orange cream” smelly candles reminiscent of something in a suburban Kirkland’s, or a Cape Cod tourist shop. Williamsburg, once known for design leadership, has begun to ape its imitators. At its core, Colonial Williamsburg is a town that became a brand and it is that brand that is in jeopardy of descending into a “ye olde” parody. Like Gucci, it needs a reinvigorating Tom Ford who can navigate a tenable path between hip, history and brand expectations.

It’s a different era for Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, born of success in convincing millions that they could get that Colonial America feeling through Williamsburg. That success spawned imitators. House museums like Monticello and Winterthur have ratcheted up their licensing, and now are destinations-cum-catalogs. In addition, Williamsburg’s retail look has been copied by everyone from Ethan Allen to Bombay Company. While Williamsburg is trademarked, the town is not, which allows local retailers like Williamsburg Jeep to borrow the mystique.

Today, the Foundation is fighting for its life. Last year, visitation was down to under 800,000 (dropping since 1995) and the Foundation lost a stunning US$ 35 million, according to the Associated Press. Those who observe the situation think there is still a market, but it is by no means assured; even beloved Cypress Gardens closed. “I don’t think cultural tourism is dying,” says Ken McCleary, a Virginia Tech professor of tourism and hospitality. Instead, McCleary says that the new attractions like Vegas hold more excitement. “There is so much more competition for that kind of stuff.”

Williamsburg must get a lot right, all the time, as the scope of what its thousands of employees do is beyond most any other brand. It is first a US history museum (actually a couple of museums and dozens of exhibition houses), both indoor and outdoor. It is a landlord, renting houses to employees and guests (a recent exec was, upon hiring, delighted to be handed a skeleton key when he took possession). Like a theme park, it runs parades, bands and dress shops. Like an historical society, it runs a public archive. Like National Geographic, it has publications, a documentary unit and archaeologists. Like any company town, it runs restaurants, hotels and bus routes. Williamsburg has national experts in textiles, furniture, decorative arts, costumes, even fake-food. It also makes products; last year, it began selling silverware, leather bound books and cedar buckets made in the shops.

Williamsburg is one of the world’s great experiments in brand revival. In the 1920s when John D. Rockefeller Jr. first became interested in the former capital of Virginia, it was to restore or rebuild the main public buildings because of associations with past US presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Taverns in town were fully reborn and rebuilt as real restaurants — Christiana Campbell’s, Shields Tavern, King’s Arms and Chowning’s. Today, each is a separate concept with its own menu, logo and product licensing.

As the tourists came, other brands began. First there was the luxury Williamsburg Inn, which Rockefeller envisioned as the sort of place Rockefellers would stay. Then came the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club and the Motor House (yes a motel!). Part of the brand appeal was the magic Rockefeller touch. After all, John D. Rockefeller Jr. simultaneously created Rockefeller Center and Colonial Williamsburg.

Through the years, Williamsburg led taste and trends. Synonymous with quality and good taste, Williamsburg had snob appeal without alienating the average tourist. In 1983 it even hosted Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the G-5 Economic Summit. Today, the mix appears not to be working.

Hoping to capture a “silver lining” from September 11, last summer CW defensively issued a poll stating that half of the US was not taking a summer vacation. It closed its nearby plantation Carter’s Grove, and is selling off real estate. It will close and move the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. The venerable Craft House, CW’s cozy department store, will be torn down, and the retailer moved. Tourists now go to the Craft House to photograph it before its destruction later this year, certainly a curious position for a preservation non-profit.If there is one criticism that folks at Colonial Williamsburg hate, it is that Williamsburg is Disney – a 300-acre colonial theme park of fife corps. But the parallel with Disney (or EPCOT) is eerie. It was no secret that Uncle Walt was fascinated with Williamsburg; the restoration of Duke of Gloucester Street predates Disneyland’s Main Street by 25 years. Its resort Williamsburg Inn also predates Disneyland’s resorts. Like Disney, CW is at a crossroads. Does it take the Roy Disney route, and go back to its roots? Does it follow Michael Eisner, and stick to its guns? Or does it reinvent itself with a new partner like Comcast?

Certainly, the problems are a result of changing fashion. Williamsburg has always prided itself on historical accuracy and that comes at a price. Today, the CW newspaper uses a shirtless, sweaty black slave with flames coming out his head and a sharpened hoe as if ready for race war in its marketing communications. Whether that is a complete picture of colonial history is debatable; that it does not appeal to its core white, upper middle class audience is undeniable. In the old days, Williamsburg hired costumed guides who discussed the furniture and architecture; today there are “interpreters” who play characters. While many like it, it is expensive and alienates high-end guests who would rather have scholarly descriptions of ogees and gesso.

Much is right, however. Williamsburg hired Quinlan Terry, the British architect and favorite of Prince Charles, to add onto the retail downtown Merchant’s Square, a retail area which bucked the downward trend of just about every American downtown. It restored the pre-Hawaii Five-0 Jack Lord movie, The Story of a Patriot. It even continued the annual Antiques Forum, which attracts collectors to the Williamsburg Lodge. Wisely, it has reserved the “4 XX” reproductions logo for copies from the collection. And it’s still clever — one of the more amusing mascots sold is Wellington, the Leicester Longwool Sheep, a stuffed reproduction of a Williamsburg rare-breed sheep.

Furthermore, Williamsburg still can provide a bold marketing flourish; on President’s Day in February, it placed an intellectual ad on The New York Times’ op-ed page to celebrate Lincoln and Washington. It includes its bold new marketing slogan, “America. Chapter I.” which is certain to appeal to the core audience of upper middle class families. Let’s hope it works. While Williamsburg might be America’s first chapter, it would be a shame to write Williamsburg’s last.

John Garland Pollard is a Virginia magazine editor. While in college in the ’80s, he worked at the Craft House and counts as one of his great childhood achievements winning a pie-eating contest in a public “faire” in the Governor’s Palace Garden. This appeared March 1, 2004 on

News: Richmond’s Plan to Raze Broad Street

Here, the 400 block of East Broad Street. The Sunny clothing store, which was an Up Against the Wall back in the 1980s, is to the left of G.C. Murphy.

From the Corridor Real Estate Journal, Washington, D.C.

RICHMOND – Richmond’s City Council took the first official step to beginning the $322 million Grace Park Center downtown revitalization project by approving a Broad Street redevelopment district that would allow for eminent domain.

Jack Berry, executive director of Richmond Renaissance, the downtown development agency which put together the plan, said that the plan is a continuation of already official downtown master plans. “It respects retail in downtown,” said Berry, speaking in defense of the district at the end of a raucous City Council meeting Monday, July 26 that pitted preservation and arts groups against each other.

(The midnight discussion of the redevelopment followed another contentious decision by council to reinstall a controversial mural of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee near Richmond’s new Canal Walk, a move which offended some African-Americans.) “We’re here to work with you,” said Berry to the assembled landowners and preservation officials gathered to speak against the plan.

Berry said that with condemnation issues out of the way, Richmond Renaissance could proceed with finding a developer to supervise the entire project, which would demolish the empty Miller & Rhoads building for a block-large park, and to tear down the also-vacant Thalhimers building for a new theater and arts complex and class A office space. Council’s passage of the redevelopment district, while unanimous, was a compromise for city leaders and Richmond Renaissance, as it now includes official input from representatives from neighborhood groups.

Included in the revised redevelopment ordinance was the inclusion of an ad-hoc community committee to work with Richmond Renaissance on the plan and a commitment by the city to historic preservation in the district, including Art Deco storefronts in the 400 block of East Grace Street. Exactly how the buildings would be preserved was not determined, and preservationists also used the meeting to blast the subsidies that the hotel would need, the cost of the project, and the many unrealized plans for downtown Richmond, citing “years of strangers with beautiful drawings.”

“These are the plans of the country club set,” said architect Isaac Moses Regelson, the first to speak in opposition to the district. “Do not subjugate us to the whims of corporate welfare.”
Regelson, the mayor’s most recent appointment to the city’s Urban Design Committee, said that while downtown was all but dying two years ago, an economic boom in downtown was already here, and did not need to be pushed along by the city.

Lenard Shields of Shields Shoes, a 36-year-old business in the redevelopment area, spoke against the redevelopment ordinance, but worked on the compromise legislation with Councilman Sa’ad El-Amin and Mayor Timothy Kaine before the meeting. “I have this horrible feeling it’s going to come back to haunt us,” said Shields, who thought the compromise was better than nothing, but nevertheless an attempt to “appease the opposition.” In original plans by the Massachusetts architectural firm TerraScape, a four-star convention hotel was slated to be build on Shields’ block, the 400 block of East Grace Street.

But in the compromise legislation, amended during the meeting, the storefronts would be saved and about 20 feet lopped off the back, from the alley. Instead, the hotel could front on Broad Street, across from the expanded Richmond Centre. Shields said that he would lose heating and air conditioning units, but would be able to keep most of his retail footage. Shields said that the legislation also includes a March 1, 2000 date where the buildings could be taken if it proves necessary, depending “on the developer’s needs.”

The hoped for completion date for the hotel is near July 2002, when the Richmond Centre, the 1980s-vintage convention center, will be tripled in size to 600,000 square feet.

Alan Shaia, whose family owns the old Thalhimers department store, spoke against the plan, and asked that a time limit be placed on the district, so that private individuals could resume control of the district if the project does not take off. “After nine years of plans, we should put a time limit on it,” Shaia said, referring to frequently issued consultant plans on downtown. “After two years, let the property owners have it back.”

Others wondered whether a subsidized hotel in the plan would preclude development of other empty buildings downtown, including the empty Hotel John Marshall one block away, and the Art Deco-style Central National Bank building, where city officials also hope to develop a four-star hotel at Second & Grace streets.

Chandler Battaile, interim executive director of the preservation group the Historic Richmond Foundation, said that the plan should not be written in stone, especially if a developer could be found for the 1920s Miller & Rhoads building, which could be eligible for federal tax credits. Boosters of the plan and redevelopment included some of the major arts groups in the city, including the Virginia Opera, the Richmond Symphony, the Arts Council of Richmond, TheatreVirginia and the Richmond Ballet.

Stephanie Micas, executive director of the Arts Council, said that Richmond was one of the few cities of its size without a performing arts complex. Amy Bridge, Richmond director of the Virginia Opera, said that the Carpenter Center, which would be expanded in the Grace Park Center plan, was inadequate for the opera, and sets were difficult to get in and out. Those comments were echoed by Marcia Thalhimer, representing the Richmond Symphony, which also performs at the Carpenter Center.

The Carpenter Center hopes to launch an $8 million capital campaign for expansion as a part of the Grace Park Center plan. Bill Baxter, representing the Richmond Retail Merchants Association, also spoke in favor of the plan, saying it would “preserve the architectural fabric almost at all costs.” The four-block project would include two office towers, a four-star hotel, a residential tower, parking for 2,000 cars, movie theaters and two new performing arts facilities.

The plan still has many barriers. The city will need to subsidize the hotel, and funds have not approved for site acquisition or construction, which could prove costly, as the street is still the main shopping district for inner city residents, including a G.C. Murphy department store and bustling Korean-owned shops.