I’m learning that tourists are late risers and I’m often the only one on the first tour of the day. So it didn’t surprise me when I found myself alone, waiting for the start of the 9AM tour of the Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg.
“What colony are you from?” asked the interpreter, to pass the time as we waited past the hour for more visitors.
“Maryland,” I said.
I wasn’t sure what waterway he was talking about. The Chesapeake? But I was up for a little 18th century sustainability talk, so I played along. “No,” I tell him firmly “it’s ours.”
It turned out not to be the Chesapeake Bay, but the Potomac River to which he referred. It separates northern Virginia from Maryland. James I deeded the Potomac River to Cecil Calvert of Maryland. I was right. It was ours. (Things changed in the late 1800s, when Congress told us that we had to share.)
Eventually, I was joined by two more people. “What colony are you from?”
“Pittsburgh,” said the guide, gently, “is not a colony.”
We were led from the yard into a dependency. Thirty years ago, on my first visit to the Palace, we’d been taken into the same dependency and taught to curtsey and bow. When we get to the front door, we were instructed, we were to curtsy/bow to the person who answered it. I’m happy to report that this time, our time in the dependency was spent hearing an historic overview of the house.
The General Assembly of Virginia authorized a house to be built for royal governor Edward Nott in 1705 and appropriated £3000 for the job. It was, however, 13 years and several thousand pounds later before a governor, Nott’s successor Alexander Spotswood, moved into the still uncompleted house.
No one knows why it was called a palace. It certainly isn’t a palace by European standards. The Colonial Williamsburg website speculates that it could have been criticism aimed at the expense of building and maintaining it, or it just could have been what every official government residence was called. In any case, it really isn’t a palace. It’s more like a large, grand house.
It was home to seven royal governors and two American ones before the capitol of Virginia was moved to Richmond in 1780. Almost immediately after the governors moved out, the house became a hospital for American wounded from the Battle of Yorktown. One hundred fifty-six of them are buried in the garden. In December 1781, a fire of unknown origin burned the house to the ground. The government sold the remaining bricks and that was the end of the original house.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation bought the property in 1928 and archeologists spent two years uncovering the building’s original footings and cellars. Williamsburg reconstructed the house over the footings using Jefferson drawings, General Assembly records, and a copperplate engraving of Williamsburg buildings, including the front of the Governor’s house, found in an Oxford library. Royal governor Norborne Berkeley’s 1770 estate inventory was used to furnish the interior, which is now presented as it might have been when Berkeley’s successor, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, lived there with his wife and seven children.
Objects are a mixture of original (returned from various places), of the period, and reproductions. The middle panel in the fireplace above is original to the building and the marble around it was reproduced to match it. Two of the guns in the front hall are original. The rest are reproductions of those originals.
The guns above the mantel in the dining room belonged to Governor Dunmore. They were a gift to Colonial Williamsburg from the current Lord Dunmore.
The Palace ballroom is the scene of a Colonial Williamburg evening program called “Dance, Our Dearest Diversion.” I attended a session a few months ago. There were ten…or maybe twelve…interpreters who performed 18th century dances, accompanied by a violinist. They then taught the dance to any tourist who was interested. The routines seemed complicated and I was thoroughly impressed by how good most of the tourists were. I can barely stay upright as I walk so no, I did not participate. Only negative: no pictures during the program.
The portraits in the ballroom are of Dunmore ancestors Charles II and his wife, Catherine of Braganza. All of the pictures in the house are of the period.
On a visit to the Palace a few months ago, there was an interpreter with an unusual costume: a floor-length gray coat-like garment, rather like a Victorian beadle. So as he got ready to close the door leading into the ballroom behind us, I asked. “Can I take your picture?”
“No,” he said. It’s been the only time that I’ve ever had a costumed interpreter, in any living museum anywhere, refuse my request for a picture. “I’m tired of having flashbulbs going off in my face.”
I was sympathetic but still surprised, since I thought that lending color to tourist pictures was part of their job description. Our tour guide expressed surprise as well. The look on her face must have made him reconsider because he changed his answer almost immediately. I demurred but he insisted. So I have a picture — taken without a flash — of the grumpiest looking historic interpreter in the history of museumdom. Should I post it?