WILLIAMSBURG – Colonial Williamsburg is at it again with the notion that somehow it can cordon off a public street, charge admission, and make people pay for what belongs to the nation as a whole. This idea, which seems to pop up every two decades or so, comes even though Williamsburg, as its reason for being, is supposed to be an object lesson in freedom and the noblest aspirations of Americans.
The corollary example: What if a clique in Boston decided it was going to fence in Boston Common and hold regular re-enactments?
A bit of background. Williamsburg was, and is, an actual city, the colonial capital of Virginia, and birthplace of our country’s most notable founders. Over a six decade period from the roughly the 1930s to 1980s, Colonial Williamsburg purchased, restored and rebuilt much of the colonial fabric of the town. This built on decades of efforts by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and others beginning in the late 19th century. These predecessors of CW purchased historic sites and buildings (Capitol, Powder Magazine) and laid the groundwork for The Restoration, or what others call CW.
Williamsburg opens up many of the houses and buildings and shops for tours and such, by ticket. However, the public streets have always been just that, public, with Williamsburg closing Duke of Gloucester Street merely to cars during my childhood. However, in recent years, Williamsburg has struggled, and has searched for revenue to keep the enterprise afloat as it created ever more elaborate re-enactments and costume dramas. Thus the idea of fencing off portions of Williamsburg, turning the city into a sort of Disneyland, is fully realized. This could make true Frank Lloyd Wright’s October 1938 criticism of the “shallowness” of Williamsburg, heard at that famous Phi Beta Kappa hall lecture.
Long History of Fences
My namesake great-grandfather, Virginia Gov. John Garland Pollard, was mayor of Williamsburg during the early days of the restoration. While he was professor at William & Mary, he conspired with the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin to get John D. Rockefeller Jr. to come to Williamsburg to rebuild the Raleigh Tavern; his interest was Phi Beta Kappa, and teaching citizenship. He was also founder of the Marshall-Wythe School of Citizenship, which created what became the Marshall-Wythe School of Law.
While governor, he helped write the 1932 public policy book Modern Government in a Colonial City. The lead author was Luther Gulick, Director of the Institute of Public Administration at Columbia University. The book details the history of government in Williamsburg and brings that history from colonial establishment to the 1930s.
Gov. Pollard writes that in 1870, the state abandoned the idea of local government by closed corporation. The idea, he recounted, was that city officials needed to be elected, and not some sort of guild or private club. This legal structure allowed Williamsburg to elect 12 councilmen, four justices, one overseer of the poor and one street commissioner. However, the large elected body was apparently unworkable, and in 1884, Williamsburg became subject to the rules for towns of less than 5,000.
This new lineup was more useful, providing for a city corporation that would elect a mayor and six councilmen, none receiving a salary. Gov. Pollard, who was a notable Virginia Constitutional scholar and former Attorney General who yearly annotated the state code in his popular law book series Pollard’s Code, observed that a main reason for incorporating was to keep the streets open. He wrote:
“The ordinances passed were characteristic of small communities – bills to prevent peddling, to require gates to be hung so that they opened inward, to tax billiard parlors, to prevent persons fencing the streets, and a bill to keep Policeman X out of saloons, except in the discharge of his duties.”
When I read it, I almost fell out of my Paschall-era William and Mary windsor chair. You read it right; one of the first duties of the city was to prevent persons fencing off the streets.
There are so many arguments against this issue, that go beyond whether some people might be “for” the idea or “against” the idea. Such as:
- The correct “colonial” interpretation (a CW mantra) of the street is that it is public. So to wall it off makes it most unlike the 1775 time period.
- The street has been paid for many times by the public.
- CW will become even more isolated, as everyday Virginians of all means, who are used to shopping and walking the street, stay away from the area.
- Williamsburg itself will become more isolated and theatrical, rather than historic and authentic. The key value to Millenials, a future audience, is authenticity.
- Williamsburg is not Disney. It is an educational institution that owes its tax free status to its availability and service to the general public.
- The people who would not pay for a visit to the historic area are precisely the people who need the historic area.
- Alexandria, Charleston, Savannah and seem to do well with public streets.
Cities, particularly cities that carry the history of the nation, do not “belong” to private entities, no matter how much they make a mess about how great they are. Colonial Williamsburg was created so the everyday man could see what life in Colonial Virginia was like, and walk in the steps of patriots. In particular, it was designed so that the everyday person could visit the town and not pay to visit the restored buildings. The idea being that we all need to be informed by the architecture.
Through the years, CW officials have been careful about being too imperious in their approach to locals. In June of 1928, when the Rockefeller Fund gift was announced, the audience who might be concerned about this even included special meetings of the everyday citizens of Toano.
Genteel Civil Disobedience
I do wish Williamsburg native Margaret Lane Toth were still alive. As a child, and well into the 1980s, Aunt Margaret, as I called her, would drive her very large, powerful Buick Riviera down Duke of Gloucester street, whenever she pleased. She resented even the blocking of Duke of Gloucester street to traffic during the day. We thought it a hoot though, and always admired her gumption at doing this.
Her case was simple. This is my street too. There is a bit of injustice in this whole idea of fencing; she grew up at “Shady Lawn” on Waller Street, behind the Capitol, where her father Col. L.W. Lane, lived. CW records indicate that it was Col. Lane who apparently sold at least a piece of the Raleigh Tavern property to Colonial Williamsburg. Margaret Lane Toth, a fearless conservationist who lost her only son tragically in the U.S.S. Liberty attack, was not about to be told what to do on her childhood street.
The streets belong to the people of Virginia, and if CW is not up to the cause of keeping these buildings up, they need to reinvent, rent out some houses like England’s clever Landmark Trust, ratchet down the re-enactments or return the buildings to others. That CW cannot find its way is no excuse for a wrong to be committed.
Virginians graciously let The Restoration come in, and operate. They have done a great thing over the years. But they were to come and operate for the benefit of the people, not for the benefit of themselves. If somehow they have proven themselves incapable of it, perhaps they might turn over some of the operation to others, and leave the low-rent, plein air Hamilton show to others.