“What’s your favorite song?” Marvin asks a guest after inviting him to take a turn grinding corn in the yard behind the Randolph House. It’s one of many unexpected surprises guests will encounter in the reimagined Historic Area.
Marvin, portraying an enslaved member of the Randolph household, smiles at the suggestion of Bohemian Rhapsody. He begins to improvise a simple work song, using the rhythm to alleviate the drudgery of labor. The guest takes a turn, asking who would have done this work, and why you couldn’t just mill the corn, and how much exertion the task required. And, and…
“And” is the idea. Programs, interpreters, and hands-on opportunities have been rearranged to promote deeper engagement, especially in select sites across the Historic Area. These changes (which we previewed a few months ago) are now underway. This overview should help you navigate the new look.
The changes include new programs at the beginning and end of the day, expanded hours in many trade shops and other sites, more activity in the iconic Raleigh Tavern, and more immersive experiences at the Geddy House, Wythe House, Randolph House, and Public Armoury.
There are countless stories to tell—of how 18th century Virginians lived, learned, fought, and aspired to better futures. So here’s your overview of how to plan your visit, with an emphasis on what’s new.
If you’re taking the bus from the Visitor Center (which we recommend!), hop off at the Market House, which is your gateway to the 18th century. You’ll be greeted by interpreters who can help you find your way if necessary, and you’ll be just steps from the action.
Start your Historic Area visit with Welcome to Williamsburg, a new 10-minute program in front of the Courthouse on Market Square, which offers a quick entertaining primer on how to make the most of your visit. It’s especially useful for first-time visitors. Check the schedule for times; it currently runs at 9:30, 10, and 10:30 a.m. daily.
You might notice that the Military Encampment is now steps away. Stop by to chat with members of the Virginia State Garrison Regiment. The Indian Delegation has also set up camp there as they visit Williamsburg on a diplomatic mission. Learn more about their lifeways and their relationship with the colonists before heading farther into the city.
If you liked visiting the Powell House, you’ll love the Geddy, which is now open all day, every day. Step into the busy home of a well-to-do family at the crossroads of the capital city, where Palace Green meets Duke of Gloucester Street.
James Geddy was a successful silversmith. Entering the home, you’re in his place of business. The foundry is out back (don’t forget to stop in), but this first room is where he does business. See some of the work, learn about the business, and try counting out some 18th-century money before passing through into the family’s personal space in the house.
Once you’re in the domestic spaces, you’re part of the family. Try out an 18th-century bed, play games, do some chores, or find out what’s planned for dinner. Kids will love this immersive experience.
There’s a stream of different visitors, making calls to do business or just pay a social visit. You never know who you might meet. Or what you might be asked to help out with.
The Wythe House and gardens are also now open seven days a week for the full day. Tours of the house are self-guided, but there are interpreters nearby who help explain how the family used the home. (So did General Washington, who used it as his headquarters in the weeks before the decisive Battle of Yorktown in 1781.) Barriers are in the process of being modified to allow guests to come further into the rooms.
A couple of the rooms have no barriers at all. In the first floor parlor, I sat for a few minutes to appreciate a musician practicing an 18th-century piece on her harp. You can also walk around Mr. Wythe’s second-floor study and admire the globe, microscope, and other scientific instruments that were the hallmark of an Enlightenment enthusiast.
I also met Theodorick Bland, who was working on an orrery (a model of the solar system) and musing about the possibility of intelligent life on Venus. Such are the people you might encounter.
Outside, the garden should be in bloom before too long, but there’s much more happening in the yard now. You might find a table set up with the kind of scientific curiosity or experiment that would have been close to Mr. Wythe’s heart. The Wythe kitchen is open again, manned by staff from Historic Foodways. I watched Alan expertly stuffing sausage casings while fielding questions about the dishes prepared on a nearby table.
And now there’s a trade shop on the property, as the Coopers moved down from Nicholson Street. The property is now a hub of constant activity.
The household of Peyton Randolph is another site that has been restructured to offer a more intensive experience, tempting visitors to linger after touring the home. This home affords guests the opportunity to learn much more about the experience of enslaved African Americans, about 28 of whom lived here in the late 18th century.
The tour offers insight into the lives of all the people who lived there. In the yard in back, there are all sorts of happenings: food preparation in the kitchen, candle making, cow milking, and more. Don’t forget to ask Marvin if you can have a turn grinding corn with the mortar and pestle.
The Anderson Public Armoury
Anderson’s Public Armoury already had a lot going on, with the blacksmith shop, the military artificer, the tin shop, and the kitchen creating a small village of workers tending to the needs of the army. Now you’ll be meeting more individuals interpreting the historical people who might have had business there.
When I visited I encountered Col. James Innes working with Yorktown merchant John Hatley Norton to calculate the provisions needed along a route the army might take. When young people approached, they had them do the math on a small chalkboard, making them part of the story.
Meanwhile, Donald Fraser, a Scottish prisoner of war, worked nearby to repair weapons. With a rather poor attitude, if you ask me. But others seemed to find him entertaining enough to stay and converse for a while.
Soon there will also be an area in the rear of the lot where students can learn about simple machines, the basic forces, like levers and wedges, that are the scientific basis for so much of how 18th-century workers had to employ before other kinds of power made it easier. Look for that later in the spring.
We’re starting to do more work farming within the city limits. Stop by to discover what’s going on in Mr. Prentis’ pasture, directly behind Prentis Store. This spring they will be planting small patches of corn, tobacco, cotton, and a little patch of turnips there.
Historic tradespeople will soon begin installing a front porch on the Raleigh Tavern as we follow through on what we learned from archaeological and archival research. But it will remain open during the construction, and there are changes inside, too.
Tours of the Raleigh are again being offered daily, and as you step into different rooms, you’ll learn about the historic discussions of rights and liberties—and perhaps also where we might have missed the mark—directly from the people who were there. People like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, of course, but also regular folks who have something to say about the big ideas, too.
Daily Dramatic Programs
Every day offers 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. programs at both the Charlton’s Coffeehouse Stage and the Governor’s Palace Stage. Check the daily schedule for what’s on tap on a particular day. The rotation includes dramatic stories of patriots and loyalists, African Americans and Native Americans, Nation Builders and ordinary people trying to navigate a changing world.
Don’t forget to check the marquee at the Playbooth Theater when you’re near Palace Green; there you’ll find a schedule of daily entertainments, including music and puppet shows.
The Day Isn’t Over Until You Say It’s Over
Circle back to Market Square at 5 p.m. for a bit of pageantry with Marching Into Evening. It actually starts with a bang as a cannon is fired on Courthouse Green at 4:50 p.m. as the Fifes and Drums march down DoG Street from the Capitol, then performs.
That closes out the day for most sites, but your visit isn’t even close to over. Stick around for a tavern dinner, an evening program, and shopping. Talk about what you experienced together, and all the new things to see.
One thing that hasn’t changed? You still can’t see it all in a day—or in a week, for that matter. We hope you’ll make time to come back soon, and let us know what you think.