Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg may think that our work to preserve Virginia’s 18th-century capital means that the place never changes. Every day, however, we strive to learn more about the past and build on the work of our predecessors to represent the city as accurately as possible.
We work from a historical record that is never quite complete, and more often than you might realize, our research reveals we got something wrong the first time around. We’ve learned that is the case with the walls of the Governor’s Palace Great Hall and Stairway Hall used to display arms. Following regular annual maintenance closures of the site this and next January, guests will find the walls of those rooms a lighter shade of color.
We’ve long known that the home of the Royal Governors in Williamsburg had displayed the arms of the Colony on its walls to symbolize the power of the governor. In 1722, the Reverend Hugh Jones described the display in his book The Present State of Virginia as “a great number of the best arms nicely posited, by the ingenious contrivance of the most accomplished Governor Spotswood.” The original Governor’s Palace burned in 1781, however those arms displays are recreated in Colonial Williamsburg’s 1934 reconstruction of the historic site.
The last major change to the Governor’s Palace arms displays took place nearly 12 years ago, when research served as the basis for a more historically accurate display of arms in the Governor’s Palace. That work led to scrutiny of wall finishings in both rooms.
We found that the decision to use stained walnut paneling in the Great Hall, Stairway Hall and stairway was based on a single fragment of burnt wood that had been found under a different part of the site – the ballroom – during excavations of the late 1920s. Further research of historical records including plans and paintings revealed that walls used by the British in the 18th-century to display arms were painted solid, light colors to highlight the arms themselves.
We discovered the same type of finishings in the intact arms displays at Chevening House and Hampton Court in England. We can be confident the Governor’s Palace was appointed similarly during the late 18th century.
The walls of the Great Hall will be worked on first, during this month’s scheduled maintenance of Jan. 15-26. The walnut paneling will be cleaned, a protective, reversible coating will be placed on the woodwork, which will then be painted a light cream color. This cream color is based on the period print sources, and has been found through paint analysis of original Williamsburg structures. Following Virginia patterns for the use of walnut in interior architecture, we will not paint the doors, window sash, or their surrounding trim. Similar work is scheduled for the Stairway Hall and stairway in January 2019.
Change is challenging for historic sites, however in this case our research provides us a clear way forward with regard to accuracy. This work will all be done to create an interior that is as close as possible to what our 18th-century forefathers would have seen when entering the Palace. As always, we welcome guests to see the exciting results of our work.”
Editor’s Note: The Governor’s Palace is open seven days a week through Jan. 14 then again beginning Jan. 27 to guests with Colonial Williamsburg admission. Tickets and additional information are available at Colonial Williamsburg ticketing locations, online at colonialwilliamsburg.com, by calling 855-296-6627 toll-free, by downloading the free Colonial Williamsburg Explorer app via the Apple App Store and Google Play, and by following Colonial Williamsburg on Facebook and @colonialwmsburg on Twitter and Instagram.
Goldstein is Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator of numismatics and mechanical arts. Webster is director of Colonial Williamsburg’s Grainger Department of Architectural Preservation and Research.