There is so much to see in our Colonial Capital that we know it can quickly become overwhelming! That is why we have been posting different travel guides for families, fans, and specific groups of people—all ahead of our busy summer season. We’ve talked about everything from our Historic Trades sites to our Art Museums to special programming and even dining choices. Today, I’d like to talk to you about some of our guided historic sites tours. Because yes…. I really, really love our buildings!
You’re probably very familiar with our trades sites and our shops. But what about all of those *other* buildings? The ones with interpreters leading you through engaging tours?
“Now, Whitney,” you say, “I’ve been coming to Colonial Williamsburg for 10 years, and the last time I went in a building that wasn’t a trade shop was five years ago because honestly, how much has really changed?” Cue my eyebrow raise and impish grin… and allow me to give you a little insight!
I am a part of a talented group of costumed Historic Sites Interpreters that uses primary sources, archeology, architecture, decorative arts, and various interpretive techniques to weave together not just a tour, but a story, for you—our guests! As historians and teachers, I assure you we are not simply reciting scripts. We come from varied backgrounds and are not animatronics (I left those at my last job with Disney) but are rather living, breathing, passionate individuals who wish to teach, inspire, and set off a spark for every person who enters our sites. So, each time you visit a building, whether it is two days or two years apart, we hope you will learn something new. And there’s a good chance you will since we just hired 30 additional interpreters who will be giving tours around town this summer.
Now, before I get started, I want to clarify that when I say “buildings”, I am not referring to the private houses where employees and volunteers live. Yes, it is true. Some of us live where we work. Our houses are sprinkled throughout our Capital between other buildings that are open to the public. Unfortunately, these are not open to tours and you cannot come inside for tea. However, you are welcome to admire from the outside and just for fun, here is a glimpse at what it’s like to actually live in one of those private homes.
But back to our historic sites. I have tried to outline some basic details about each building, and also note special programming connected to each one. In addition, I have listed which trades are in the area to help you map out a more complete itinerary for your day. Of course, you will always want to check your Daily Map & Program Guide for the latest updates including which sites are open when you visit! Okay. Are you ready? Let us take a trip through the Historic Area, starting along…. Palace Green.
Summer Hours (June 17 – August 21): 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday – Sunday
Free-flow Tour: After a seven to eight-minute introduction, you will join up to 50 guests that are taken in every 10 minutes for a free-flow look through the building. While you can take everything in at your leisure, there are also Historic Sites Interpreters stationed throughout the home to answer any questions you might have. Our Junior Interpreters and Family Program Interpreters are also working this summer to engage young guests in varied hands-on programming including games. Depending on the day, you could learn anything from botany to how to use a microscope to more on the study of prisms and fossils. When you’re done, you can also explore the gardens behind the Wythe House and even read a book on one of our benches!
Tour Topics: Through the end of this year, the Wythe site is focusing on when the house was used as General Washington’s Headquarters which takes us back to September of 1781. You’ll discuss the life and times of George Wythe, and his importance during the Revolutionary Era, along with his interest in the Enlightenment.
Special Events: “Keeping the General Informed” 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. every day, where young visitors can write a letter to General Washington using a quill and ink!
Nearby Trades: Guests are encouraged to visit with the Basketmakers behind the Wythe House Sunday-Thursday. You’ll also find the Wheelwrights a smidge past the Wythe House, off the beaten path. Just turn down Prince George Street and you’ll see them at the corner, on the right!
Summer Hours (June 17 – August 21): 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays
Guided Tour: 14 Guests are invited at a time to take a 25-30 minute guided tours every 15 minutes or so, depending on volunteer staffing levels.
Tour Topics: The story of Thomas Everard, twice mayor of Williamsburg, Clerk of Court for York County, and Clerk to the Secretary of the Colony of Virginia, and the stories of his family and slaves.
Nearby Trades: Again, the Basketmakers and Wheelwrights are just around the corner!
Summer Hours (June 17 – August 21): 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., 7 days a week
Free Flow AND Guided Tours: Guided tours take in 45-50 guests every 7-15 minutes until 4 p.m. (the last tour of the day usually enters at 3:40 or 3:45) and the tour is approximately 25 minutes long. On very busy days, this may mean that to secure your spot on the tour, you need to wait a short while, but there are seats and air conditioning while you wait, and we will get you into the building as soon as we can. Beginning at 4 p.m., you may explore the Palace at your own pace, and ask questions of the Historic Interpreters stationed throughout the building.
Kids Tours! This summer, we will be debuting a brand new children’s tour! It is designed for families with young ones (think pre-K through six years of age) to provide an active, hands-on experience focusing on the more immediate and inquisitive needs of our energetic youngest guests. The tour will take in smaller groups than usual (25-30 to accommodate families) and will run 25 minutes, with interactive components such as riddles, scavenger hunts, unpacking items used by the Governor’s children, dancing, and courtesies. The tour will begin to run on June 20 at specific times of the day, so check the daily schedule—and ask at the Palace gate—to take advantage of this new experience!
Tour Topics: With a building that represents the home of seven Royal Governors, as well as the first two governors of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the possibilities are endless! But the main focus of all Palace tours is to highlight the royal and gubernatorial power in Virginia, as well as the limits of that power. This is most clearly highlighted during the tenure of Governor Dunmore, the last Royal Governor, which is how the Palace is set up.
One Interpreter may choose to focus on how the actions of the Royal Governor affected his family once they joined him in the colonies, while another may use the decorative arts in the building to display the wealth and power of the office, and yet another may lean the theme towards the events leading up to the start of the War—you never know what you’ll learn!
*If you’re a photographer who likes to get beautiful and detailed shots, the free-flow hour is going to be perfect for you—and the lighting tends to be pretty nice at that time, as well.
Special Event: Storming the Palace (Tuesdays, Thursdays & Fridays at 10:15 a.m.) While this event does not occur inside of the building, it does happen on Palace Green, and is a fun moment to get involved in our living history as the citizens of Williamsburg confront Lord Dunmore over the removal of the gunpowder from the Public Magazine in April of 1775. This also means as soon as the large mob of people who have gathered to participate see that the event is over, they will be heading toward the Palace, so the tours can get rather busy at that moment.
Extra Fun: You’re also welcome to enjoy the gardens and grounds of the Palace at your own pace either before or after your tour. Don’t miss the fun life-size maze!
Nearby Trades: You will often find our Historic Foodways staff cooking up something delicious in the Palace Kitchen or possibly even brewing beer in the scullery!
Nearby Snacks: McKenzie’s Apothecary
Summer Hours (June 17-August 21, 2016): 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday – Sunday
Free-flow Tour: The Geddy is a free-flow experience that blends traditional, interpreter-led, hands-on programming. Guests can explore the first floor at their own pace. (Keep in mind with free-flow sites that there are times when the building may be a bit crowded and you may have to wait a short time before heading inside). Just like the Wythe, the Geddy Site schedules Junior Interpreters and Family Programming Interpreters to engage (especially our young) guests in backyard games.
There is also the opportunity for self-exploration in the shop and bedchamber to discover what is kept in the desk and chest of drawers. You can also try on costumes and take pictures (or rent, buy, or make your own!) The Geddy offers a Tea & Politics program, Weights, Coins and Measures, & From Ingots to Table is offered in the shop. The dining room will host a variety of activities from dancing and music to board games and a variety of chores.
Tour Topics: The Geddy focuses heavily on domestic life of an 18th-century tradesman along with the silversmith trade itself.
Nearby Trades: Shoemakers, Weavers, Joiners & Candlemakers, Historic Gardeners (Colonial Nursery), Foundry
Nearby Shopping: Mary Dickinson and Colonial Nursery & Garden
Summer Hours (June 17 – August 21): 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., 7 days a week
Free-Flow AND Guided Tours: In the mornings, the Courthouse is free-flow style, with Historic Sites Interpreters on hand to discuss the law, specific cases, and answer any questions you may have. In the afternoons, Order in the Court is a special program included in your ticket—see below!
Tour Topics: Court cases! The Law! Due Process! And how all of those things can affect the lives of individuals, as well as the rights of individuals when it comes to a court of law. While the Courthouse is representative of the County Seat in the 18th century, if you have a question about the higher courts that you forgot to ask on your Capitol tour, this is also a good place to do it.
Special Events: Order in the Court! Summer Hours: Tuesday-Friday at 2 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 3 p.m., 3:30 p.m.
Be a Justice, Defendant, Plaintiff, or simply observe actual 18th-century court cases! (Arrive early! Judge the timing accordingly—if it looks really busy outside, and you are really wanting to participate in Order in the Court, you may need to wait a bit, but be patient—it’s worth it!)
Nearby Activites: Market House, the Magazine, Fire Engine Bucket Brigade, and shade (silhouette) portraits at the Greenhow Store!
Nearby Trades: The Weaver and Shoemakers are just a hop, skip, and a jump away on the other side (and to the right) of DoG Street.
Nearby Snacks: Chowning’s Cider Stand
Summer Hours: (June 17-August 21, 2016): 9 a.m. -5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Guided Tours: Each tour takes approximately 17 guests in every 15-20 minutes throughout the day, on a 25-minute guided tour. You are then encouraged to explore the outbuildings at your leisure.
*In my experience, due to the nature of the tour topic, while the tour itself is usually under 30 minutes long, guest questions afterwards may take a bit longer, and with the outbuildings, I would try to give yourself an hour between starting the tour and your next preferred event, so that you have a leisurely travel time as well.
Tour Topics: As President of the First Continental Congress, and Speaker of the House of Burgesses, Peyton Randolph was a household name when it came to leading Virginia, as well as the other Colonies in politics and towards Independence, and he and his wife, Elizabeth Carter Harrison, were quite the patriotic power couple of 18th-century Virginia, merging two of the most prominent families in the colony. But what of the great dilemma of so many of our Founders—speaking of freedom and equality while at the same time owning other individuals? Tours of the Randolph House invite guests to consider this dynamic and explore the lives of not simply the matriarch and patriarch of the household, but the lives of the enslaved individuals who lived and worked in the household—and their thoughts on this great contradiction.
Extra Fun: There are various demonstrations that occur daily in the outbuildings, and guests are invited to explore these at their leisure after they’ve completed the guided tour. Cooking, Laundry, Music, and Literacy are just a few of the topics you may find our Historic Sites Interpreters demonstrating in the outbuildings and yard behind the house. This is a wonderful time to ask questions, and perhaps even help out with a hands-on task.
Nearby Trades: Down Nicholson Street (which runs parallel to DoG Street), you’ll find the Brickyard, Coopers, Cabinetmakers & Harpsichord makers. You’ll also see the Military & Indian Encampments, and eventually the Public Gaol and Capitol. It’s a much less busy street than Duke of Gloucester, and the walk is lovely!
Can you believe this is just one side of town? Stay tuned for my second blog post tomorrow, when I’ll help you explore all there is to do near the Capitol!
A huge thank you to Wayne Reynolds, volunteer, and local photographer-at-large, who spent the last few weeks taking some updated photographs specifically for this blog post. You’re the best!
Guest Blogger: Whitney Thornberry Austin
Whitney is a Sites Interpreter who has been with the Foundation full time since March of 2015. She and her husband, Bryan, live in the Historic Area with their rescued pup Derby (a sweet girl of 3 who thinks the horses are just big dogs with which to play).
Whitney loves hosting dinner parties, sewing, reading, distressing furniture, science fiction, historical dramas, old movies and anything from the Williamsburg Winery. Her mother used to say she was born in the wrong century—and now she gets the best of both!