Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Williamsburg, ever changing as a 1770s capital

My wife and I have lost count of the number of times we've visited Colonial Williamsburg. She first went in high school, before she met me, and we went together in February 1972 as she dropped me off at Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in nearby Yorktown. Since then and since our children left our home an empty nest, we've been back we're guessing 20 times or more.

Although Williamsburg is in one sense static, stuck in 18th century when Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia and the host of such notables as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and many others, we tell people that there is always something new there, something to learn, something to wonder at.

In the time since we began visiting, Colonial Williamsburg has changed, however, in an effort to make the 18th century more appealing in the 21st century. John D. Rockefeller financed the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg to preserve the history of the run-down little town nearly forgotten by the 1930s. What resulted was a recreation of the Williamsburg of the 1770s with its Colonial Capitol, Governor's Palace, Courthouse, Powder Magazine, taverns, private homes and gardens. It gave visitors an opportunity to step back in time and just soak in the ambiance of a colonial capital on the cusp of independence. The architecture, gardens and decorating of the revived era became popular and admired.

But looking at formal gardens and restored architecture could not keep pace with the competition by the late 20th century, and Colonial Williamsburg began looking for other ways to compete for tourists and revenue. Williamsburg's fee structure and crafts were changed, and new activities aimed for a younger audience. Activities were developed to appeal to children, and now young visitors can dress up in colonial costumes.

The latest innovation is street drama called "Revolutionary City," a daily performance of events from Williamsburg's history, such as the flight of the colonial governor from the city, or the arrival of British troops during the Revolutionary War. The actors mill about with the tourists before the play begins and engage in conversations in character. These dramas are clearly designed to attract today's tourist, who expects more pizazz for his tourism dollar. I've come to appreciate the dramas, despite a feeling that CW archaeology and history is being depreciated by simplification and mass marketing, that mass appeal is trumping pure history.

What excited me more on our latest trip was the newly finished reconstruction of the armory complex based on archaeological findings. For me, Williamsburg will always be more about the history and the opportunity to experience life in the 1700s, almost as if you were there — because, in a real sense, you are.

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