Did you know...
. . . that only 88 of the 460 or so buildings in the Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg are original or rehabilitated structures that were still standing when the restoration began in the 1920s? This is an impressive number for 145+ years after the capital of Virginia was moved to Richmond in 1780. But the original 88 still account for only 19% of what you can now see and, in many cases, enter in the Historic Area. The two most recognizable buildings – the Capitol and the Governor’s Palace – were long gone by the 1920s. In fact, a school had been constructed on the Palace site. Gone, too, was the Raleigh Tavern where so many historic events occurred in the 1770s, including the founding of Phi Beta Kappa in December 1776.
How was it possible to confirm that the other buildings existed, to find their exact locations and to reconstruct them with a high degree of confidence in the accuracy of the work? What we see in each historic building in CW is the result of diligent and painstaking work over weeks, months and years. Surviving deeds and insurance policies provided general locations and descriptions. An 18th century engraved copper plate discovered in 1929 at Oxford University (top right) provided helpful architectural details for the Wren Building and two other buildings (the Brafferton and the President’s House) at the College of William & Mary just west of CW’s Historic Area (top row), the Capitol Building (middle row left and center) and the Governor’s Palace and two advance buildings middle row right.) For more information about the “Bodleian Plate” click here.
One particularly interesting and useful item is what is now called the “Frenchman’s Map” which is in the library collection of the College of William & Mary. The map generally is believed to have been drawn by a French Army officer when the American and French Armies under Generals Washington and Rochambeau were preparing to besiege Lord Cornwallis and the British Army just down the road in Yorktown. While an amazing “find” at the College in the early 1900s, it is clear that the map is not a complete presentation of every building. Perhaps it was primarily used to find housing for the troops, which might explain why various “out buildings” like kitchens and smoke houses were not included?
You can read more about the speculation on the origin and the purpose of the Frenchman’s Map and about its usefulness in the reconstruction of buildings – particularly in considering where to look for foundations of structures that were gone or built over – in this article.
But written records and images such as the Bodleian Plate and the Frenchman’s Map are only a portion of what has been needed to locate and reconstruct with accuracy the 80% or so of CW’s buildings which were no longer standing when the restoration began in the late 1920s. For a look at more of the process required to locate the sites of those buildings, watch for the next “Did you know . . .” article on this 175th page.
If you missed earlier "Did you know . . . ?” items, please click here.