Reactions: Congratulations and Controversy

Duke of Gloucester Street.

In a letter describing the beginning of the Restoration of Williamsburg, Dr. Goodwin wrote, "Somehow I have always felt that the older people of Williamsburg, many of whom lived in Colonial houses, were largely responsible for the dream of the city restored" (copy of letter included in Hayes, 13). It was his dream, however, and he initially shared it only with a select few.

Fearful of the impact that knowledge of their plan would drive up land prices and cause speculation as to Mr. Rockefeller's intentions, Rockefeller and Goodwin decided to quietly buy up property, keeping their plan as secret as possible. Of course, such large acquisition could not go unnoticed. The local papers in nearby Newport News and Richmond both printed articles and editorials relative to the property buying which had been occurring in Williamsburg. Some of these articles speculated about the possible figure or figures behind such purchases. Goodwin, the spokesman, would offer only that the holding corporation's goal was "to preserve and restore in part the historic buildings and atmosphere of historic Williamsburg" (from Goodwin's 1927 response to the Newport News Daily Press, as recorded in Hayes, 97).

Most of the townspeople were willing to sell their property. Goodwin received letters of support from local residents, some of whom he engaged to aid him in acquiring other tracts of land (Hayes 104). After two years of acquiring property and maintaining the secrecy of the purchaser's identity, Goodwin and Rockefeller decided it was time to let the town know the name of the donor.

The Mass Meetings

On June 12 and 13, 1928, mass meetings were held in Williamsburg and Toano (in James City County), respectively. At the Williamsburg meeting, held at Matthew Whaley Elementary School, the air was tense. Those who had gathered to finally hear a name sat patiently through the proceedings, which dealt with the transfer of city-owned land to the Restoration, until Goodwin made his announcement. He prefaced his remarks by noting, "It is the purpose of our associates to make this place a national shrine. Benefits will come in spiritual, as well as material, ways. Every businessman will be benefited. It should be a source of pride to you to feel that you will here have the most beautiful shrine dedicated to the lives of the nation builders" (Hayes 218). One witness, Goodwin's longtime secretary Elizabeth Hayes, recorded that he paused and then announced the names of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. of New York, bringing a round of "spontaneous applause" (Hayes 219).

Miss Emma Barlow, resident of one of the historic properties.

Two citizens moved to draft a resolution of approval and appreciation, which was in fact adopted. But there was a minority opinion expressed by Major S. D. Freeman, who pointed out,

No consideration has been given to the broader aspects of this transfer. If you give up your land, it will no longer be your city. Will you feel the same pride in it that you now feel as you walk across the Greens, or down the broad streets? Have you all been hypnotized by five million dollars dangled before your eyes? Can anyone of you talk back to five million dollars? If we close the contract, what will happen when the matter passes out of the hands of Dr. Goodwin and Mr. Rockefeller, in both of whom we have perfect confidence? . . . Who will control? . . . We will reap dollars, but will we own our town? Will you not be in the position of a butterfly pinned to a card in a glass cabinet, or like a mummy unearthed in the tomb of Tutenkhamon? (as quoted in Hayes 220)

Freeman raised very salient points of concern regarding the incorporation of public space and the museum-ification of the town. And yet he still noted that he had every faith not only in Goodwin, whom he knew personally, but also in Rockefeller.

The Harris Store, located on Duke of Gloucester Street.

Both the capitalist and philanthropic images conjured by the name Rockefeller were accepted whole-heartedly by the people of Williamsburg.

The reaction of the crowd was the one that Goodwin had hoped for: only four dissenting votes for the transfer of the public lands, and unanimous approval of the resolution of appreciation for Rockefeller (Hayes 221). This same note of approval was voiced at the County meeting, by the College and by area newspaper editors. And yet, as the Restoration got underway, many of the questions raised by Major Freeman recurred in the minds of residents.

The Confederate Monument Controversy

In their efforts to rebuild the colonial city, the restorers ran into many obstacles. One of the biggest was the large marble Confederate monument located on Palace Green for it was an obstacle both physical and cultural. In January, 1932, the Confederate Monument was removed from the Palace Green and relocated in the Cedar Grove Cemetery, on the outskirts of town. Cara Armistead, who with Major Freeman had opposed the 1928 transfer of public lands, became the leader of the drive to replace the monument on its original site. (It is also interesting that the nineteenth-century Armistead house, located near the Capitol building on Duke of Gloucester Street, stood until the early 1990s, when the family finally agreed to sell their property to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.)

By 1931 the schools which had stood on the grounds of the Governor's Palace had been removed and the Palace reconstructed. But the view was not as it would have been in colonial times, for the monument honoring the Confederate dead stood in the way, an anachronism in the reconstructed colonial environment. The removal of the monument, decided by a small group of Williamsburg Holding Corporation and United Daughters of the Confederacy officials, prompted a dialogue which centered on the question of which history was to take precedence: the colonial, or the Confederate.

The long-held sense of identity with a Southern, Confederate past had been disrupted by the removal of the monument, even as most of those who held that past most dear understood and even supported the relocation of the monument. But to have it moved so far out of sight was unacceptable, too much of a disruption of the town's identity. The matter was tried in court and in the press, and the monument was eventually moved not to its original location, but to a more prominent site on the east side of the new courthouse. The colonial had, in fact, begun to overshadow the Confederate past in the minds of the townspeople.


Introduction|| "500 Lazies and 500 Crazies": Williamsburg Before the Restoration|| Reactions: Congratulations and Controversy|| Ramifications: Capitalizing on the Depression