On this day, March 30, back in 1957, Colonial Williamsburg unveiled its new “Information Center,” with adjacent Motor House and Cafeteria–the state of the art for mid-20th century tourist facilities.
It also featured the debut of a theater custom-designed to showcase the new orientation film, The Story of a Patriot. That film, of course, still runs daily in the space now called the Visitor Center, and it is the longest-running movie in history.
The Information Center, sited on 40 acres that included a former golf course, was 10 years in the making and debuted in time for the celebrations marking 350 years since the first English settlement at Jamestown, just a few miles down the road.
Promotional materials boasted that the complex was “designed for 20th-century people, to meet 20th-century needs.” Among those needs were a swimming pool and parking for more than a thousand cars.
The Williamsburg Motor House included a dozen single-story buildings and a total of 200 air-conditioned rooms, each with floor-to-ceiling windows. (Today much of it is the Group Arrivals Building next to the Visitor Center.) The Cafeteria could serve 600 patrons per hour, and the Information Center featured nine exhibits concerning the restoration and 18th-century Virginia.
The grand opening of the center was quite an event, with chairman of the board Winthrop Rockefeller welcoming dignitaries that included Virginia’s governor, Thomas B. Stanley, U.S. Senator Absalom Robertson (father of Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson), the director of the National Park Service, and a substantial portion of the general assembly.
The placement of the Information Center away from the Historic Area was intentional. Visitation was swelling beyond the ability of the restored area to absorb the people.
And the cars. Duke of Gloucester Street at that point was still open to traffic, and in his remarks that evening Rockefeller spoke of the importance of prohibiting cars “to give visitors every opportunity to recapture their historic past.”
He also looked forward to the removal of Eastern State Hospital, whose buildings were scattered where the Art Museums stand today, to a location a few miles away. It was crucial, he insisted, to minimize modern distractions.
At 9:30 The Story of a Patriot premiered, introduced by director George Seaton and vice president of Paramount Pictures Frank Freeman explaining why the theater was so special.
New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, was in attendance, and commented extensively on the innovative design: “The most striking aspect of the theatres, which seat 250 persons each… is the illusion of space inside them and the sense imparted of complete removal from the outside world.”
The screen was curved in a “radical arrangement” to make viewers feel that they were immersed in the events being depicted. Crowther noted the cast was largely “unfamiliar actors,” Jack Lord becoming the exception a decade later with his starring role in television’s Hawaii Five-O.
60 years ago, the project to help Americans make that imaginative leap of traveling back in time was still in its early stages. Our ideas, not to mention our means, of how to achieve the journey to the 18th century, have evolved. But like the nation’s aspirations to achieve the promise of our founding values, it remains a work in progress.