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Williamsburg - Governor's Palace

 

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Governor's Palace

One of three great public buildings in Williamsburg

A professor from the College of William and Mary sketched a Williamsburg vista in a book published in 1724, when the city was just 25 years old.

"From the Church," he said, "runs a Street northward called Palace Street; at the other end of which stands the Palace or Governor's House, a magnificent Structure built at the publick Expense, finished and beautified with Gates, Fine Gardens, Offices, Walks, a fine Canal, Orchards, &c. . . . This likewise has the ornamental Addition of a good Cupola or Lanthorn, illuminated with most of the Town, upon Birth-Nights, and other Nights of occasional Rejoicings."

Completed in 1722 following 16 years of construction

The Governor's Palace officially had been finished two years before the book was published (in 1722), after 16 years of fitful building. But it stood now, one of the finest homes of its kind in America, as a physical metaphor for the position vice royalty enjoyed in the capital of England's largest American colony.

In the words of one modern writer, the Palace visitor traveled a "carefully orchestrated procession of spaces moving toward and culminating in the presence" of the king's immediate representative in Virginia. Down Palace green, through the ornamental iron gates, across the forecourt, up the stone steps, into the hall with its display of muskets and the royal coat of arms, up the stairs, and into the governor's upper middle room, the visitor arrived at the chamber of power.

Governor Nott persuaded Virginia General Assembly to authorize construction

The governor's house was the third great public building of Williamsburg, after the Wren Building and the Capitol. Governor Edward Nott persuaded the General Assembly to authorize its construction with an act passed October 23, 1705, but appropriation of the 3,000 needed to get started was withheld until June 22 of the following year.

Henry Cary first of three contractors to work on construction of governor's house

The act directed contractor Henry Cary to erect a two-story brick house that measured inside 54 feet long and 48 feet wide, had sash windows, a cellar, one vault, a kitchen, and a stable. It was to be erected on 63 acres on the city's north side, purchased from Henry Tyler, and whatever adjacent town lots might be needed. Cary laid foundations 61 feet long and 54 feet wide in the summer of 1706.

John Tyler continued construction following Cary's discharge

Work proceeded, but soon the money was gone. Cary asked for and got another 400 on April 28, 1708. But the house stood unfinished in 1710, when he was discharged for accounting irregularities and replaced by John Tyler.

Governor Spotswood pushed for completion of home for Virginia chief executive

Spotswood arrived that year to replace the deceased Nott. The new chief executive pushed for the Palace's completion, and on December 9 the legislature provided another 1,560, with 635 more to be spent on outbuildings, gardens, ornaments, furniture, and a four-foot wall around it all.

The entrance hall seems to have been completed in October of 1711. Spotswood had decorated it with a display of bayonet-tipped muskets when William Byrd came to visit that month. Another act to finish and beautify the residence passed in 1713, but it was three more years before Spotswood took up residence, and the work was still incomplete in 1718.

The House of Burgesses was tiring of the continuing expense. It complained on November 21 that Spotswood was "lavishing away all the country's money" on the project. Spotswood promised to pay for the canal and the terraced gardens if the burgesses would not.

First called "Palace" in 1714

The word "Palace" was first used for the governor's house about 1714. When all was at last done, the building measured up to the name compared to other colonial structures, but not to European palaces. There stood a five-bay Georgian home laid up in Flemish bond with glazed headers and rubbed brick window jambs and lintels. It had three floors of about 3,380 square feet each, a cellar with 11 wine bins, a row of dormers in the roof, and an iron balcony at the central upper window. Just inside the gate guarded by a stone unicorn on one side and a stone lion on the other stood two one-and-one-half story brick advance buildings with gabled roofs. They ran perpendicular to the main structure.

Beyond the house was a formal garden in which guests could stand on the mound of earth that covered the icehouse to look into a large, naturalistic park that stretched away to the north. The stable, carriage house, kitchen, scullery, laundry, and an octagonal bathhouse were arranged in service yards beside the advance buildings.

25 servants and slaves tended the property

Three surviving inventories of personal property attest to the elaborate furnishings of a household that required 25 servants and slaves to tend. There were butlers, footmen, cooks, laundresses, gardeners, maids, grooms, and laborers. When Governor Botetourt died, the cellars held 2,820 bottles of Madeira, hock, small beer, strong beer, porter, claret, burgundy, and port. He told a deathbed visitor that he was leaving his Palace comforts "with as much Composure as I enjoyed them."

Governors who lived in the original palace included:

Alexander Spotswood; Francis Fauquier; Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt; Hugh Drysdale; William Gooch ; Robert Dinwiddie John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore; Patrick Henry; Thomas Jefferson

Each governor made improvements and repairs, but after Gooch left in 1749, the colony's Council concluded the building was in "ruinous condition" and ordered renovations. The bill for these renovations came to just over 1,259. When Dinwiddie arrived in 1751, the work was still under way and the colony had to buy a house next door today's Robert Carter House from Dr. Kenneth McKenzie so the governor would have someplace to stay.

Elegant and festive balls held at the Palace

The Palace was, as well, the focus of the city's fashionable society and finest entertainments. The October 31, 1771 Virginia Gazette reported:

"Last Friday night being the anniversary of our Most gracious Sovereign's Accession to the Throne, his Excellency the Governor gave a Ball and an elegant Entertainment at the Palace, to a numerous and splendid Company of Ladies and Gentlemen."

The arrival of a Cherokee chief to sign a treaty, the assembly of enough people at Publick Times to have "a rout" (as balls were sometimes called), and certainly the king's birthday (as the Reverend Hugh Jones of the college faculty recorded) were occasions for Palace galas. On the highest occasion, lights might be put in the windows of the little tower or lantern (or "lanthorn" as it was called) that crowned the flat, balustrade roof.

Governors hosted gala events for large gatherings

Governor Alexander Spotswood spoke of playing host to 200 people one night. Governor Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt, received 52 dinner guests one day, and expected as many more the next. The governor's table was set with the finest linen, plate, and china; his food was delicious, and his wines were excellent. Yet as tempting as it might be, the Palace's hospitality sometimes was declined. After Governor Francis Fauquier dissolved the House of Burgesses during the Stamp Act crisis in 1765, fewer than a dozen people appeared for his king's birth-night celebration.

Williamsburg builder Richard Taliaferro built rear wing

After Dinwiddie moved into the Palace in 1752, the rear wing with its ballroom and supper room was raised. The contractor was Richard Taliaferro, builder of the George Wythe House.

When the city recoiled from the theft of gunpowder from the Magazine in 1775, Dunmore summoned 40 sailors to the Palace to protect him from angry citizens. On May 15, 1775, he said he had turned it into a garrison. On June 8, Dunmore fled, never to return. The Palace muskets were pulled from Spotswood's decorative displays to be put to more practical use, and Dunmore's personal slaves and private furniture were auctioned to the public before the month was out.

General Charles Lee of the Continental army made the Palace his headquarters until it became a hospital. Then Virginia's government ordered the structure renovated for Governor Patrick Henry. Henry was allowed to add new furnishings until the value of the Palace appointments and repairs reached 1,000.

Government moved to Richmond, ending governor's residence

Thomas Jefferson succeeded Henry in office and residence. In 1779 he drew a floor plan of the Palace, perhaps with a view to remodeling. The government, however, moved the next year to Richmond, and nothing came of the plans.

The Palace served again as a hospital in the fall of 1781, this time for American soldiers wounded in the Battle of Yorktown. Some 156 of them, and two women, are buried in the garden.

 

 


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