Colonial Williamsburg is a living-history museum and private foundation presenting a part of the historic district in the city of Williamsburg, Virginia, United States.
Its 301-acre (122 ha) historic area includes several hundred restored or re-created buildings from the 18th century, when the city was the capital of Colonial Virginia; 17th-century, 19th-century, and Colonial Revival structures; and more recent reconstructions. An interpretation of a colonial American city, the historic area includes three main thoroughfares and their connecting side streets that attempt to suggest the atmosphere and the circumstances of 18th-century Americans. Costumed employees work and dress as people did in the era, sometimes using colonial grammar and diction (although not colonial accents).
In the late 1920s, the restoration and re-creation of colonial Williamsburg was championed as a way to celebrate rebel patriots and the early history of the United States. Proponents included the Reverend Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin and other community leaders; the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (now called Preservation Virginia), the Colonial Dames, the Daughters of the Confederacy, the Chamber of Commerce, and other organizations; and the wealthy Rockefellers John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.
Colonial Williamsburg is part of the part-historic project, part-tourist attraction Historic Triangle of Virginia, along with Jamestown and Yorktown and the Colonial Parkway. The site was once used for conferences by world leaders and heads of state, including U.S. presidents. It was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1960.
Colonial Williamsburg is a historical landmark and a living history museum. Its core runs along Duke of Gloucester Street and the Palace Green that extends north and south perpendicular to it. This area is largely flat, with ravines and streams branching off on the periphery. At the City of Williamsburg’s discretion, Duke of Gloucester Street and other historic area thoroughfares are closed to motorized vehicles during the day, in favor of pedestrians, bicyclists, joggers, dog walkers, and animal-drawn vehicles.
Surviving colonial structures have been restored as close as possible to their 18th-century appearance, with traces of later buildings and improvements removed. Many of the missing colonial structures were reconstructed on their original sites beginning in the 1930s. Animals, gardens, and dependencies (such as kitchens, smokehouses, and privies) add to the environment. Some buildings and most gardens are open to tourists, the exceptions being buildings serving as residences for Colonial Williamsburg employees, large donors, the occasional city official, and sometimes College of William & Mary associates.
Prominent buildings include the Raleigh Tavern, the Capitol, the Governor’s Palace (all reconstructed), as well as the Courthouse, the George Wythe House, the Peyton Randolph House, the Magazine, and independently owned and functioning Bruton Parish Church (all originals). Colonial Williamsburg’s portion of the historic area begins east of the College of William & Mary’s College Yard.
Four taverns have been reconstructed for use as restaurants and two for inns. There are craftsmen’s workshops for period trades, including a printing shop, a shoemaker’s, blacksmith’s, a cooperage, a cabinetmaker, a gunsmith’s, a wigmaker’s, and a silversmith’s. There are merchants selling tourist souvenirs, books, reproduction toys, pewterware, pottery, scented soap, and tchotchkes. Some houses, including the Peyton Randolph House, the Geddy House, the Wythe House and the Everard House are open to tourists, as are such public buildings as the Courthouse, the Capitol, the Magazine, the Public Hospital, and the Gaol. The Public Gaol served as a jail for the colonists. Former notorious inmates include the pirate Blackbeard’s crew who were kept in the 1704 jail while they awaited trial.
Colonial Williamsburg operations extend to Merchants Square, a Colonial Revival commercial area designated a historic district in its own right. Nearby are the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, operated by Colonial Williamsburg as part of its curatorial efforts.