If a visit to Colonial Williamsburg is a trip back in time, when exactly is that time? We use shorthand terms so often—18th century, Revolutionary City, colonial America—that it’s easy to collapse a complex era into a kind of moment. But the Historic Area is made up of many moments over many years, and so are the buildings.
Virtual Williamsburg, which has been building a digital version of the city for more than a decade, offers just such a moment. There, it is forever 2 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15, 1776, the day the Fifth Virginia Convention passed the resolution asking the Continental Congress to declare independence. Even the shadows slanting into the street under a bright sun tell you this is a precise moment, not an amalgam of an entire period, in history.
It is an impressive resource available to the public, but it’s just as useful for Colonial Williamsburg’s own researchers who are constantly working to refine our understanding of the city. “It makes you think a lot harder and deeper than you do if you’re just simply writing about it,” says architectural historian Carl Lounsbury. “If you have to produce an image for it, you have to think it through and come up with reasons for why it looks the way it does.”
We’ll get to some of the most interesting differences you will find between the bricks-and-mortar structures of 2016 and the virtual 1776. But first, there are a few things you should know when you visit Virtual Williamsburg.
It’s pretty straightforward to use. The top navigation shows the main options. You can “Explore in 3D,” which allows you to “walk” down Duke of Gloucester Street, or through the Raleigh Tavern or the Dickson Store (interpreted today as Charlton’s Coffeehouse). When you go to this page the first time, you’ll be asked to install Unity, a simple plug-in that makes it possible to wander down DoG Street at your own pace. Be forewarned, however, that it does not play nice with Chrome, so if that’s your usual browser, you’ll have to use an alternative like Firefox or Internet Explorer to enjoy the 3D portions. Most mobile devices will also have trouble with the 3D functionality.
The 2D representations should work on any device, however. Selecting “Revolutionary City” will take you to an overhead map of the eastern section of town, where you can click on any building in red to get more information, including some digital renderings, history, and interior views. The third choice, “Armoury,” shows the block the blacksmith shop is on. See #6 for more about that!
Now get started exploring and see what interests you the most–then let us know!
#1 There were two Capitols
It’s kind of an open secret that we have what some consider the “wrong” Capitol anchoring the east end of town. Wrong, in the sense that Colonial Williamsburg reconstructed the first Capitol building, which was completed in 1705 and burned in 1747. So while it’s definitely a colonial capitol, it’s not the one that stood during the Revolution.
In 1753 a second capitol opened, with a more classical look. The rounded ends of the first capitol (which happen to be the basis for Colonial Williamsburg’s logo) are squared off, and the west-facing entrance shown here is much grander.
#2 There Are Unique Spaces to Explore
Virtual Williamsburg makes it possible to explore the differences in a variety of spaces, in and out of doors. The Capitol is one of those. Today we’re accustomed to seeing a kind of open breezeway that runs between the two wings in the reconstructed first Capitol. But in the second Capitol that space was enclosed, and its centerpiece was the statue of Lord Botetourt, who served as Virginia’s governor from 1768-70.
Today a replica of the statue stands in front of the Wren building, and the original is on the ground floor of Swem Library at the College of William & Mary. Cindy Decker, who does all the renderings for Virtual Williamsburg, expertly used a 1796 sketch by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, to create this scene.
#3 The Old Theater was really cool
Behind the Capitol you can find the Old Theater, a wonderful building that hasn’t existed in a very long time. You can explore it in a great deal of detail. To get there, enter 3D Williamsburg, then walk around the right side of the Capitol. The theater will be straight ahead. When you approach the door, a green button appears. Click on it and you will enter the theater.
You’re actually jumping back a little more in time here. With the war raging, Congress called for an end to frivolities like the entertainment that would have been staged here. The theater was closed, and would have likely been boarded up, in 1776, so the rendering shows how it would have looked in 1772.
Inside it looks close to showtime. Go upstairs and see what the stage looked like from one of the boxes. Look at the sets hanging below from the catwalk.
#4 Building Uses Changed Over Time
Charlton’s Coffeehouse was rebuilt just a few years ago, but did you know that it was actually the site of Dickson’s Store by 1776? In Virtual Williamsburg you can head right into the store and poke around. You’ll notice that instead of the tables where patrons could take their ease, there is a counter, and an assortment of wares for sale.
This is far from unusual. Many of the properties in town were businesses, and some seemed to turn over annually.
#5 It’s a Different Streetscape
Aside from slaloming around the deposits made by our horses, it’s pretty easy to walk through town today. The pavement is even and relatively flat. Virtual Williamsburg uses topographical maps to create an accurate terrain. So when you walk along virtual DoG Street, you immediately sense the rise and fall—okay, the ruts, divots, and bumps—of an 18th-century road. And no trees. It’s a reminder that just getting around without looking like you’d been in an accident was a lot more challenging then.
#6 Change Was a Constant
18th-century Williamsburg was a city in flux. Buildings were built, modified, and sometimes burned. Residents and businesses moved as frequently as they do today. So when you’re looking next to the King’s Arms Tavern, you’ll see a smallish building with only the frame completed. The Barbershop (which we know as the Wigmaker Shop) was in the middle of being built in 1776, and that is how it’s shown.
#7 We Still Have Some Holes to Fill
Wetherburn’s Tavern is called Robert Anderson’s Tavern in Virtual Williamsburg, because that’s who ran it in 1776. Like the Raleigh Tavern down the street, it had a porch. Recent archaeological work has shown that it extended all the way across the front of the building, so here is an example where Virtual Williamsburg led the way with a speculative image of a porch that turned out to be an incomplete rendering.
Visible on either side of Wetherburn’s are two shops known to have existed that have not, yet at least been rebuilt. On the left as you face the tavern is the Rowsay Jewelers’ Shop. On the right is the Virginia Gazette Shop, where Alexander Purdie was the first in town to print the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Perhaps the site will yield new evidence of life in Williamsburg, and down the road, perhaps they will be rebuilt.
#8 Williamsburg Really Was a City
Sometimes ongoing research makes us reevaluate what a building looked like in the 18th century. The current Raleigh Tavern porch project is an obvious example. But once in a while, we’re not really sure why a building was reconstructed in a particular way.
That’s the story with the Brick House Tavern, which stands at the southwest corner of DoG Street and Botetourt and is used as one of our Colonial Houses. A 1931 design for the reconstruction based on documentary evidence, especially insurance plans, had two stories. But for reasons we can only speculate about, it was built with a single story.
So why does this matter? Well, as Carl Lounsbury put is, “It’s a two-story rowhouse with six units. This makes Williamsburg very urban.” In other words, our quaint little village was taking definite steps to becoming a real city. Events stifled that momentum soon enough, but the reconstruction doesn’t fully reflect that reality.
#9 The Revolution Changed the Town
The onset of war altered the course of many lives, and it also altered the landscape. Select “Armoury” from the main screen of Virtual Williamsburg to see how one neighborhood changed. In 1776 James Anderson had a nice little blacksmith business behind his house at the former of Francis and Botetourt. In a few short years, the space became a complex of buildings housing work that contributed to the war effort.
On Virtual Williamsburg, you can toggle between interactive maps of this block from 1775 and 1779 and learn more about how wartime mobilization transformed the space.
#10 There Are Hidden Treasures
The walking tour down Duke of Gloucester Street on Virtual Williamsburg currently ends near the intersection of Botetourt Street. Like the city itself, it’s still under construction. But views of the Market House in its period setting were prepared during its recent reconstruction, helping everyone involved in the project visualize it and tweak the details. They haven’t made it onto the main Virtual Williamsburg page yet, but you can see several in this blog post.
We aren’t allowed to hang raw meat from hooks there today, but this view shows what it might have looked like.
Now look more closely. Behind the market is one of the most magnificent houses of 18th-century Williamsburg, Tazewell Hall. The 99-acre estate, known for its beautiful gardens, was the home of Peyton Randolph’s Loyalist brother, John “the Tory.” John and his family closed up the house in 1775 and–let’s say fled—to England, never to return.
A few years later, John Tazewell bought the vacant house, which is how it came to be known as Tazewell Hall. In 1908, the entire house was pivoted 90 degrees to accommodate the extension of England Street When the reconstruction began, it never really fit in. As the home of a loyalist, it wasn’t valued in quite the same way as other sites. So in the 1950s the structure was dismantled and sold to a private owner in Newport News.
Even in the 1700s, Williamsburg was a living, breathing place—always changing and evolving. And it’s worth mentioning that it didn’t stop evolving when the state capital moved to Richmond in 1780. So take a walk in our virtual world, and tell us what your favorite place is.