In 1848, the journalist Benson Lossing made a pilgrimage to the sacred sites of the American Revolution. He was preparing his two-volume Pictorial Fieldbook of the Revolution, a combination of a historical account and a patriotic travelogue. He visited Boston, Philadelphia, and Williamsburg, but also battlefields in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In Williamsburg, he paid his respects at the site of the Capitol and stopped in at the Raleigh Tavern.
Lucky for us that he did. For, as he related of the Apollo Room interior, “had my visit been deferred a day longer, the…room could never have been portrayed.” Carpenters were then at work turning the rear wing of the tavern into a ballroom. Worse yet, not long before he arrived, “the front part of the old Raleigh Tavern had been torn down, and a building in modern style was erected in its place.” Lossing lamented the destruction of the Raleigh, comparing it, in its importance, to Faneuil Hall in Boston.
Nonetheless, though the building itself was in the process of being demolished, Lossing’s account and his drawings fixed it firmly in the pantheon of sites associated with the nation’s founding. So, too, did Lossing’s views of the tavern become canonical, influencing the historians and architects preparing its reconstruction in 1930. (Sometimes they put too much faith in his drawings; sometimes, not enough. But that’s a story for another time.)
Just over a century later, the Raleigh Tavern began its second career as an icon of Williamsburg. On September 16, 1932, the reconstructed tavern was opened to the public for the first time. To mark the occasion, Virginia Governor John G. Pollard addressed a crowd of 400 from a flag-draped podium set up in the newly empty lot to the west of the Apollo Room.
After the speeches, which included a nervous acknowledgement that a sitting governor and a respected minister were opening a tavern during prohibition (Pollard urged the attendants to enjoy walking in the footsteps of the founders of the nation by “carefully avoiding the tap room”), the doors were finally thrown open by Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin, giving the public its first taste of reconstructed Williamsburg.
Though work around town had been progressing steadily since 1929, the Raleigh was the first fruit of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Reverend Goodwin’s unprecedented effort to restore an entire town. In the previous three years, 48 colonial buildings had been restored and 64 reconstructions had been newly built but none had yet been opened for public viewing. As an exhibition, the reconstructed Raleigh was soon joined by the Governor’s Palace, Capitol, Courthouse, Jail, and the Ludwell-Paradise House. In the 1930s, no visitor to Williamsburg could fail to make a stop at the Raleigh.
Despite the Raleigh’s historical importance, a formal interpretive program was slow to develop. In these early years, the restoration’s priority was more “show” than “tell,” asking visitors simply to enjoy the visually appealing qualities of a Georgian-era townscape. The architecture, it was thought, would speak for itself. The beauties of the restored George Wythe House, the reconstructed Palace, and other favored sites, along with their associated gardens and outbuildings, would stimulate patriotic thoughts and deepen visitors’ appreciation for the virtue, intelligence, and good taste of the founding generation.
The Raleigh was a key part of this scene, and visitors were asked to draw their own conclusions about the role of the building and its architecture in the progression of the nation’s history. Its status as an exhibition building was intended to be temporary, in fact. Within two years, it was intended to be operated as a restaurant, so a modern kitchen was built off of the north side of the billiard room, in a colonial-styled shell.
But that restaurant never opened. By 1935, Rev. Goodwin recognized the real need to educate people explicitly about the importance of Williamsburg in the course of colonial and Revolutionary history. The Raleigh had a central role to play in this effort. The first guidebooks recited the tavern’s most auspicious moments in the Revolutionary spotlight: the meeting of the Burgesses there after being dissolved by two royal governors; its status as the most esteemed tavern in colonial Virginia and the resort of the fashionable gentry; the founding of Phi Beta Kappa in 1776; as well as its role in more intimate encounters, such as the courtship of “fair Belinda” by a young Thomas Jefferson.
For many, contemplating such events from the sidewalk was enough; those wanting to dig deeper, and to look more closely, could pay an entry fee to tour inside the building, guided by a 16-page booklet.
The centrality of the Raleigh to the story of Williamsburg was further solidified in The Story of a Patriot, Colonial Williamsburg’s dramatic orientation film that debuted in 1957. The film, and the new Visitor Center in which it was shown, was meant to provide what chairman Winthrop Rockefeller called “a bridge of understanding over which Americans can walk from the twentieth century into the past.”
The Story of a Patriot shows the quickening of the patriotic enthusiasm of John Fry, a fictional planter and newly elected burgess who came to Williamsburg in the period of debate and dissension at the end of the colonial period. Key scenes play out in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh, where Fry meets William Byrd, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Washington. The scenes in the Raleigh dramatized the lively mix of conversation and political debate of colonial-era taverns, while further sanctifying it as a sacred site for a modern audience.
Whether through guidebooks or film, generations of visitors to Colonial Williamsburg came to know why the Raleigh was an essential stop—here was the site where the dissolved House of Burgesses met in 1769 to draw up a boycott of British goods; and it was here, in May of 1774, that the infuriated Burgesses, dissolved once again, called for the first Continental Congress to coordinate activities of the colonies and to affirm Virginia’s sympathies with Massachusetts.
That the Raleigh has receded in importance for many visitors is a function of the great expansion of programming in Williamsburg since 1932. From the six sites open in 1935 to the dozens available for visitors today, it is no wonder that the Raleigh might get lost as just another stop along Duke of Gloucester Street.
It’s time to take another look. The generous gift of Cynthia and Robert Milligan in support of the porch reconstruction encourages us to think hard about the importance of the Raleigh Tavern both in the unfolding of the Revolution and in the progress of the educational program of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Guest Blogger: Jeff Klee
Jeff Klee has worked for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as an architectural historian since 2004. His work includes original research on early American buildings, the design of reconstructions in the Historic Area, and scholarly publications and presentations. Outside CWF, he sits on the governing boards of the Society of Architectural Historians and the Vernacular Architecture Forum. Here in Williamsburg, he served on the Architectural Review Board for nine years and is currently a member of the City of Williamsburg’s Planning Commission.
Jeff has degrees from Yale and the University of Delaware, where he completed his dissertation on Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.