In the mid 1920s, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and her husband, John Rockefeller Jr., were contacted by Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin, an instructor at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Goodwin was also the rector of Williamsburg’s historic Bruton Parish Church, and had spearheaded a campaign to restore the building for its 300th anniversary. Goodwin was disturbed by the loss of historic structures in the area, and proposed a restoration of all of Williamsburg similar to what had been done with the church. The town was full of historic colonial-era buildings that were deteriorating and in some cases endangered.
The Rockefellers initially weren’t interested. Nor was Henry Ford. After seeing the parish church during a visit to Williamsburg, however, the Rockefellers agreed to start a modest restoration project of a few buildings. Work began in 1926. The project quickly expanded to eventually include 85 percent of the original town. Keeping their plans secret in order to hold prices down, the Rockefellers and Goodwin quietly bought property after property, eventually revealing their intentions at town meetings in 1928 (to some disquiet).
Ultimately, 720 non-colonial buildings were demolished, and today’s Williamsburg is comprised of about 500 buildings, 88 of which are original. Some of the most significant buildings, like the capitol and the governor’s mansion, had been destroyed and had to be re-created. The initial project was completed in the 1930s with the addition of retail shops.
Among its many other exhibits and cultural features, Colonial Williamsburg is home to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. Built on the personal collection of Mrs. Rockefeller, the institution has grown dramatically over the years. It is today the nation’s leading center for preservation and display of craftwork by self-taught artists.
The Rockefellers remained personally involved and invested in the preservation and operation of Williamsburg until their deaths. Colonial Williamsburg operates today as a private foundation, subsequently supported by many major donors, notably Lila and DeWitt Wallace (founders of Reader’s Digest), and thousands of annual supporters. More than 100 million visitors have immersed themselves in Colonial Williamsburg since 1932.
- Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, About, history.org/Foundation/general/introhis.cfm
- “The Far-visioned Generosity of Mr. Rockefeller,” history.org/foundation/journal/winter00_01/vision.cfm