Ideological Origins of the Williamsburg Restoration


The restoration of Colonial Williamsburg began as one man�s dream and ended up as a national treasure and historic shrine. Like all works of public history, the makers of Colonial Williamsburg glossed the final product with the veneer of their ideology and historical beliefs. The innovators of Colonial Williamsburg, W.A.R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. designed a living testament to the democratic and individualistic spirit of the Virginia colonists -- a spirit idealized to minister to the needs of the traveling American public. This section will argue that Goodwin and Rockefeller created a living monument with the hopes that Americans would internalize this spiritual notion of their past. Goodwin and Rockefeller believed that not only would travelers be inspired by this authentic restoration, they would leave with a renewed sense of a shared spiritual and political American culture. The envisioned shrine would be something to which all people could relate. Thus, in an age that understood and acknowledged its national and regional myths, the rebirth of Colonial Williamsburg produced another idealized piece of the American historical tapestry.

Trends in Restoration

Colonial Williamsburg was not without its predecessors. In fact, the art of restoration in architecture and history was well known by the time Goodwin concocted his dream of a restored colonial village. The revival of colonial architecture met its complement in the creation of a civic religion -- the moral underpinnings of civic duty and philanthropy. The two intertwined in historical societies and pulpits to create the common goal of promoting new kind of American myth-making.

The revival of colonial architecture emerged as a result of a �broad awareness and appreciation of seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth-century American architecture� (Taylor 12). The dissemination of this literature, as Thomas Taylor notes, dominated popular magazines, �particularly those directed to the middle and upper middle classes� (12). As evidenced by their pieces in the Architectural Record and The American Historical Review, the two largest promoters of this revival were Sidney Fiske Kimball and A. Lawrence Kocher. Kimball and Kocher headed the Fine Arts and the Architecture programs at the University of Virginia during the 1920s. While they focused primarily on architectural design, Wallace Nutting and Samuel Chamberlain contributed to the photography and historical study of such designs, thus providing middle America the tools for constructing the proper view of a uniquely American style of home design (Taylor 14).

Much like the writer Henry James, these architects strove to impose a solid version of Anglo-Saxon American style upon an increasingly diverse American population while simultaneously striving to separate themselves from European culture. Taylor writes that while �young American architects were traveling to Paris for their training, thousands of Europeans were immigrating to the United States. Between 1800 and 1930 the foreign-born population of the United States more than doubled; the immigrants brought their own speech, culture, and politics. Americans whose ancestors had arrived earlier were often fearful that their traditions would be swept away by the flood of foreign ideas and practices� (Taylor 14). The elites perceived that the best way to remedy this problem was to expose immigrants to the greatness of the American past, specifically through commemorative monuments. The Daughters of the American Revolution and the National Society of Colonial Dames concentrated their efforts on exposing immigrants to national landmarks. This effort, of course, often came with mixed results. For example, in the 1880s, James Russell Lowell described a recent experience that disturbed him deeply. �He believed, moreover, that the episode conveyed a profoundly important message about he implications of social change in the United States. While strolling through Boston�s Public Garden he noticed two Irishmen looking at an equestrian statue of George Washington and �wondering who was the personage thus commemorated. I had been brought up among the still living traditions of Lexington, Concord, Bunker�s Hill, and the siege of Boston. To these men Ireland was still their country and America a place to get their daily bread�� (Kammen 228). This problem still perplexed American elites in the 1920s and 1930s. They aimed to instill a collective memory about colonial history. The question, however, lay in the most effective means of fanning the patriotic embers.


 The Colonial Revival in architecture proved exceedingly popular among new homeowners. Mail order plans such as those produced by Sears and Roebuck Company, Montgomery Ward, Alladin Homes, and the Hodgson Company sold very well (Taylor 18). Taylor writes that between �1906 and 1940 over 100,000 Sears houses were built from 450 basic designs� (18). The most common choices came out of the �patriotic� models which Sears and Roebuck based upon Mount Vernon and Federal Hall in New York City. With suburbs springing up all over the country, the Colonial Revival mode of architecture seemed the more desirable choice over the more ornate Victorian forms. This showed a move toward �simplicity -- simple, straight lines, sharp angles, flat surfaces and little or no exterior ornaments, resulting in economical yet comfortable housing that made the mode an ideal source� for new communities (Taylor 20). Colonial architecture recalled the early years of America�s history and thus symbolized a simple yet dignified way of living. �Although it became a popular choice for the rich and upper middle class because it helped t create an image of authority, good family upbringing and a partnership with older traditions, it was also used for modest houses because of it national associations and because it was economical to build� (Taylor 20). Thus, elites embedded an ideological message even in the use of a certain kind of architecture for their homes. The familiarity of this message and its content tied in nicely with the preservation movements of the 1920s and 30s.

The revival of colonial architecture arrived out of a circular relationship with historical preservation societies and their projects. The first major projects involved colonial buildings, which also promoted the Colonial Revival in all its forms. �The motivation for preserving colonial structures came from recognizing not only their associative and commemorative value but also their architectural value. The shift was very gradual and facilitated by the work of two organizations, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in the Northeast and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in the mid-Atlantic area during the early twentieth century� (Taylor 21). These organizations sought to preserve the structures associated with historic persons and events.

The culmination of this movement came after World War I when America turned inward and developed an enthusiasm for native products. Wealthy individuals such as Henry Ford participated in the collecting (and obsessing about) American historical artifacts. Ford, along with the D.A.R. and the Colonial Dames, explained that the enhancement of historical sites and artifacts should be preserved because of their educational purpose. Ford and the leaders of these societies saw historical sites as cultural capital in that they contained enormous potential for �transmitting American memories and values to immigrants� (Kammen 244). As a culmination of these factors, nationalism, patriotism, and education, Ford decided to create a historical village in order to house his collection of Americana. His plans were based on an �educational system which would utilize it and the collection as a learning and research center� (Taylor 29). In all, five buildings, connected by arcades with a central exhibition hall, were designed with a replica of Independence Hall at the front. By the fall of 1929, the complex included the main exhibit hall housing most of the Ford collection.

It is important to note that the emergence of Ford�s and others �open air museums� could not be possible without the newly created mobility of the American public. The automobile allowed Americans to see these educational sites like never before. Educators did not underscore this point for they understood the power the automobile held as �an educational device� (Taylor 30). Taylor writes, �Automobiles permitted Americans to be migratory, opening a wide-range of new opportunities and resulting in a tourist boom. Travel fostered cultural nationalism by way of education. Early in the twentieth century only an affluent, leisured class could travel extensively as tourists. With the coming of mass automobile ownership after World War I, however, travel became less the exclusive preserve of the well-to-do as middle-class Americans also sought to identify with exotic places� (Taylor 30). The federal government contributed as well. After World War I , continuing through the twenties and peaking in the thirties, the federal government concentrated large amounts of time and money paving the dirt roads common until the 1930s (Taylor 31). The improvement of the highway system made historic sites easily accessible for travelers for the first time.


Architecture and history as authority in the Colonial Revival movement point to a another cultural trend previous to and during this age: the evolution of a civic religion that displaced the authority of traditional religious influences. Traditional religion and the morals that formed its core moved from the personal sphere into the sphere of the public conscience. As Michael Kammen states, �Conscience and imagination did not disappear in the decades following 1870; but it does seem fair to say that their social significance diminished, that moral concepts came to be secularized even more into polite or genteel culture. Protestant Christianity remained a bulwark of tradition, and vice versa; but the pervasive force of religion declined and spiritual crisis occurred� (Kammen 194). This spiritual crisis lay in the impact of scientific discoveries and the increasing influence of Darwin�s through upon American thought. The battle between doubt and faith escalated like never before.

This tension between doubt and faith impacted not only the historical consciousness of a nation but changed the way individuals and regions grappled with the practice of piety and the idea of tradition. �Although tradition and faith remained compatible in many regions, and could even reinforce one another, particularly in the South, tradition often tended to become a surrogate for faith or revealed religion. In ways both subtle as well as overt, history turned out to be a vital component in American civil religion� (Kammen 194).

In the South in particular, this subversion of religion in favor of tradition or causes seems particularly virulent to the historical eye. History could take the place of religion in that a Southerner might have an affection for an idealized past. A grand example exists in the �abundant evidence� suggesting that after the Civil War, Southern faith in the �Lost Cause� substituted for conventional faith� (Kammen 195). The generations after the Civil War tended to reject the dogmatism of their elders in favor of a history that seemed to heal emotional scars left by the Northern War of Aggression. This idealization of the past allowed Southerners to couple moral values instilled in them by religion with a justification of their natural and historical supremacy. Thus, �those who remained content to romanticize the past and perpetuate faith in that fantasy world were able to maintain a reasonably coherent vision of how the present had evolved and why certain values, such as racial supremacy and separation, should be maintained� (Kammen 195). History both justified the present course of Southerners as well as inspired them for the future. Their collective memory contributed in a large way to their regional identity.

Since religion was in part displaced by doubt and history took its place, the pulpit suddenly became a place for social causes. The role of the minister changed from spiritual leader and advisor to �value-expounding reinforcements� to professional historians and policy makers (Kammen 199). The minister�s sphere of influence thus expanded to include the secular. This change in influence came from the changes of minds and hearts as previously mentioned. Thus, it was not surprising that sermons began to convey historical and moral messages as opposed to the more stringent orthodox views. A phenomenon such as this allowed ministers to take historic places, such as Williamsburg, and transform them into public shrines. Not only did ministers emphasize public shrines as part of the national and moral fabric of America, they described them in religious language. W.A.R. Goodwin proudly stated to John D. Rockefeller about the opening of Williamsburg, the public could and would �reproduce the symbols and sacraments of the past�.

The significance of civic religion lies in its ability to synthesize various traditions, morals, and symbols of a culture to form a society�s opinion of itself. In discussing the cultural role of sacred symbols, anthropologist Cliffort Geertz has sensibly observed that they function in order to �synthesize a people�s ethos -- the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood -- and their world view ... their most comprehensive ideas of order� (Kammen 200). Such a synergy of materials conveys messages about a culture�s historical journey and its future path. Similarly it expresses �its most cherished values, and the allegiances that it requires of its members. Hence the significance of certain historic sites, structures, objects associated with heroic figures, flags, and holidays� (Kammen 200). Moreover, Kammen observes that the South as a region tends to value reverence and sacred spots more than others. One United Confederate Veteran in 1899 described his reunion with his fellow soldiers s �warriors as being devout as any pilgrim going to �the tomb of a prophet, or a Christian knight to the walls of Jerusalem�� (Kammen 202). Thus in the South, the collective memory and the reverence for historic sites appears especially potent. This fact in part explains the willingness of the Williamsburg residents to sell their homes, their lands, and their private lives for the greater good of the region and the nation.

The motivations of the residents, however, do not lend any explanatory power to the man who funded the transformation of their home from a run down college town to a national shrine. In order to complete the analysis, the ideas of Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. must also be explored. Their reasoning and backgrounds, especially that of Rockefeller, further complicate the themes of civil religion.

      Philanthropy and Civic Religion


John D. Rockefeller understood the importance of his contribution to civic religion. With his background of staggering wealth and Protestant faith, he believed that God�s purpose for his life entailed the promotion of religious causes. �As a Protestant philanthropist, Rockefeller took seriously the mandate to extend the kingdom of God� (Schenckel 1). Yet with the changes in American religious culture, Rockefeller�s approaches in undertaking this task drastically changed. With the decline of Protestant values in the twentieth century due to the �changing demographic, new material realities, and secular philosophies� Rockefeller developed a philosophy that attempted to restore the Protestant faith through the use of more modern tools. These tools emphasized a more secular approach to public service, including the incorporation of contributions to science and medical causes as well as explicitly religious endeavors. Yet Rockefeller�s underlying motivations always focused upon the reinstitution of religious fundamentalism in America, as evidenced not only by his one hundred million dollar donations to religious causes but also his the religious values his projects promoted. Indeed, Rockefeller explicitly rejected the notion that his contributions could be separated into the distinct categories of �secular� and �religious�. He envisioned all of his philanthropic endeavors as underneath a more harmonious umbrella of nurturing Protestant goals, whether they be explicitly religious or more humanitarian. They were mere variations of the same theme for �together they expressed the conviction that the world needed a common religious devotion to the well-being of humankind, expressed in the modern idiom and served by modern science. Rockefeller envisioned a modernist Protestant America, and this vision was a major motivation for the whole of his philanthropic work� (Schenkel 4).

John D. Rockefeller Jr.�s beliefs stemmed from his strict Baptist background instilled in him by his father. John D. Rockefeller, Sr. had made his church the center of his social life for twenty years, and during those years he also became the richest man in America. Though he �enjoyed the fruits of his work ethic, he never forgot his roots� (Schenkel 5). The Rockefellers� philosophy combined a stringent work ethic with the promotion of moral principles. That is, the same moral principles that created wealth guided not only their business interactions but the way in which they distributed their wealth to various causes. Thus, the Rockefellers nurtured the same asceticism in their son by teaching him the disciplines of evangelical devotional life, the importance of giving to the church, and having familial duty and social responsibility (Schenkel 5). These exemplified the moral values and traditions of nineteenth century Protestantism.


The nature of link between a work ethic and asceticism, is explained best in a quotation by John Wesley: �I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion...For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and the love of the world in all its branches...Is there no way to prevent this -- this continual decay of pure religion? We ought not to prevent people from begin diligent and frugal; we must exhort Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich� (Max Weber as quoted by Schenkel 14). Thus, the �same asceticism that made possible modern capitalism also made possible modern philanthropy� (Schenkel 15). Not only did John D. Rockefeller, Jr. espouse this combination, he perfected its application in a modern society -- one that did not grip as tightly to the tenets of Protestantism. Rockefeller, Jr. made it his mission to re-establish the influence of Protestantism though public displays of its ethic; it was an ethic that would exemplify the Protestant values and would provide a model of behavior in a modern era.

To understand Rockefeller�s unique combination of civic religion with his goal of reinstating Protestant values, one must compare the Williamsburg Restoration with other specific examples of his philanthropic endeavors. Within these endeavors, Rockefeller wished to express the �affirmation of God�s sovereignty and the need for prophetic vigilance� (Schenkel 64). Through public displays of these ideals, Rockefeller hoped that Americans would seek to govern and direct secular progress even as they affirmed it. In sum, Rockefeller wished to impart a vision for a modern Protestant civilization.

Of the four hundred and seventy-four million dollars from his personal wealth given to philanthropy between 1917 and 1960, �educational organizations received about eighteen percent; social welfare and relief agencies, seventeen percent, restoration and preservation projects, fourteen percent; public parks and roads, nine percent, museums, laboratories, and libraries, seven percent; and medical research and practice, five percent� (Schenkel 68). This breakdown reveals two aspects of Rockefeller�s vision for America: the understanding that science and history reflect and not detract from a jeremiad view of American culture and that modernism opened up new avenues for religious expression. Thus, Rockefeller saw now conflict between the promotion of secular goods with religious underpinnings. Secular goods simply reflected God�s handiwork in both nature and in His direction of human events. As Schenkel notes: �The fact is, however, that modernists genuinely believed that God was immanent in the cultural process as it progressed toward the telos of manifesting God�s kingdom. The impassioned discussions underlying Rockefeller�s philanthropic undertakings are impressive because of the sincere religious fervor of many of those involved. The belief that God was present in history [and science], working through events both sacred and secular, is key to understanding Rockefeller�s philanthropic vision� (Schenkel 69).

Through endeavors in educational, scientific, and religious organizations, Rockefeller sought to use the influence of his money to promote a nationalist and secularly acceptable vision of Protestantism. Indeed, the vision of the kingdom of God was even reflected in early twentieth century public policy measures, largely due to the influence and distribution of Rockefeller�s money. The powerful establishment of his vision of a uniquely American Protestantism �transformed institutions such as the Christian college, the sectarian seminary, the revival meeting, and the mission station into forms suitable for the modern world, and through them, this establishment continued the quest for a Christian America� (Schenkel 236). Scanning entire spectrum of Rockefeller�s efforts in philanthropy, evidence suggests that America became more receptive to the new religious forms and the common religious substance that Rockefeller promoted. Rockefeller believed that �the spirit and teachings of Jesus constituted a broad enough platform for public religion. Given the program of this establishment, it was not accident that Will Herberg could still detect a common faith in America in 1955� (Schenkel 239). Rockefeller�s religion of good deeds served to perpetuate a dying hegemony and an expression of an undying religious aspiration in public forms and in the public space. It comes as no surprise that Rockefeller welcomed the vision of Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin.

Rockefeller and Goodwin: the Implementation of Ideology

William A.R. Goodwin, resident of Williamsburg and rector of the Bruton Parish Church, had a dream and plan for his dilapidated and decaying city: a vision of its restoration to remind Americans of their colonial past. These plans were not hastily conceived but came as a �culminating result of years of thought and interest expressed in various efforts to restore and preserve buildings of historic interest in Williamsburg� (Hayes 2). His efforts proved instrumental in enlisting and soliciting the efforts and funding of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. From a combination of their ideologies and backgrounds, the conception of the Williamsburg Restoration was born.

Goodwin had certain thoughts in his mind that he desired to see visibly expressed in Williamsburg and the vicinity. He felt that the �close and intimate connection between old England and Virginia should be made apparent in every possible way, as well as the associations which should be recalled in Williamsburg between France and America during the war of Revolution� (Hayes 2). Thus, Goodwin envisioned a distinctly Anglo-Saxon version of Williamsburg, one that would display its greatness and preeminence in the modern culture. The desire to display of an Anglo-Saxon past was not an idea unique to Goodwin. As the previous discussion of architecture showed, many Southerners wished to preserve what they believed was a dying interpretation of their past. With the proliferation of Anglo-Saxon clubs and the many measures taken to uphold racial purity suggest, Southerners needed a visual representation of their past, one that would portray them as idealistic and intrinsically moral. This often required an invisible hand to edit what may be termed the �unsavory aspects� of the past. Thus, the restoration of Williamsburg implicitly shows that desire (shared by Rockefeller) manifested in the public domain. Goodwin believed that the restoration of the buildings and memorials in Williamsburg would �serve to recall the distinguished people of the past who had lived in the Williamsburg houses, and would also commemorate the epoch making events associated with the public buildings of this historic place� (Hayes 3). This would be a display that could serve as a �public sacrament, an outward and visible sign of spiritual truth and beauty, though which the lives of visitors to this place would be inspired and enriched� (Hayes 3). Not only would the Anglo-Saxon version of history and religion be remembered by visitors, it had the potential to change their outlook of American history; a uniform history that would promote civil religion.

After several unsuccessful attempts to garner funds from philanthropists such as Henry Ford, Goodwin decided to solicit help from Rockefeller. Their initial meeting was at a Phi Beta Kappa dinner in 1926 where Goodwin attempted to slowly acclimate the ever cautious Rockefeller to his plan of restoration. Apparently, the meeting went successfully for as Goodwin wrote to Rockefeller:

�You were so sympathetic, so considerate, and so understanding and wise in your judgments that your visit has given me the inspiration to further dreams with the hope of their fulfillment and also the courage to undertake almost anything under your direction which may result in their consummation. Should further determinations be reached, it will be my desire and pleasure not only to cooperate in the carrying out any wishes which you may express, but also to save you from the trouble of working of all details incident to the development of any plans which you may endorse or approve and present for fulfillment� (Goodwin to Rockefeller 5/23/27).

Thus began the relationship between W.A.R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Goodwin, the consummate salesman, successfully imparted his dream of restoration to Rockefeller, the promoter of religion and history, to create a shrine of civic religion. Over the span of more than twenty years, Rockefeller donated seventy million dollars to the Restoration project, emphasizing that it must be undertaken with care and precision. This project would restore both the decaying buildings and the decaying religious ideologies in America. Williamsburg became a model of historic and architectural authenticity -- a shrine that promoted the virtues of religion and authority that Goodwin and Rockefeller believed America in the 1930s was missing.

The Shrine of Civic Religion

Back to Table of Contents