Ornamental Separator

Refurnishing the Palace

A 1770 inventory revolutionized the look of a beloved building

From the moment the reconstructed Governor’s Palace opened to the public in 1935, its rooms had been widely admired. Then, in 1981, the building was closed for a few months so it could be largely refurbished.

For some, that was a scary proposition.

Recalling the refurbishment 20 years later, Graham Hood said that many of the Foundation’s friends and supporters feared “we were about systematically to dismantle a Taj Mahal.” Hood, by then a Colonial Williamsburg vice president and chief curator, noted that David Brinkley, the television anchorman and a Colonial Williamsburg trustee, approached him and said, “You’re going to dismantle the most beautiful room in America.”

What prompted the changes was a 1770 detailed inventory that had been prepared after the death of Lord Botetourt, Virginia’s royal governor.

The inventory included more than 16,000 objects in 61 spaces — and it was not a new discovery. The scholars who had furnished the Palace after its restoration were aware of it, but they didn’t try to follow it. Rather, they had in mind giving a general impression of how the Palace, which was completed in 1722, looked during its occupancy over 60 or so years. The curators bought antiques from the period, but they made only limited efforts to match the inventory. Moreover, they were influenced by the then-popular Colonial Revival style, which was inspired by 18th-century work but also catered to 20th-century tastes.

In the mid-1970s, Hood began investigating how the Palace might have looked in the 1770s, just as others at Colonial Williamsburg were focusing on the same period and considering new ways to interpret it in the Historic Area. Between 1979 and 1981, research by Hood and a team of other curators became the basis for a dramatic makeover.

These curators pored over the Bote-tourt inventory, and they compare it with contemporary accounts, letters and archaeological findings. In Gloucester, England, at the country seat of Botetourt’s descendants, Hood found account books that had been kept by William Marshman, Botetourt’s butler and private secretary, and these too were carefully studied.

“We were able to get a picture of what the rooms looked like,” said Margaret Pritchard, then a curatorial fellow and now Colonial Williamsburg’s deputy chief curator. “We realized none looked the way they should.”

One object removed from the Palace was a much-admired tall case clock made by Thomas Tompion for King William III and owned by all succeeding English monarchs through Queen Victoria. There is no evidence it had ever been in the Palace. It is now on display at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund provided $4 million to conduct research and buy objects.

Sometimes items from the period could be purchased; other times Colonial Williamsburg’s artisans created meticulous reproductions.

Linda Baumgarten, then curator of textiles, realized that by the latter part of the 18th century the Palace had wall-to-wall carpeting and not rugs. Since stripped carpeting tends not to survive, Baumgarten studied written documents, prints and paintings, and records of upholsterers to determine an appropriate pattern. Several sketches from the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, dating from around 1767, ended up being used as a model.

Leroy Graves, who was then an art handler and is now a senior conservator, recalled carving the claw-and-ball feet on 23 chairs. “It took me 2½ days to do the first one,” said Graves. “By the time I was done I was doing two a day.” Graves and colleague Wallace Gusler carved an intricate pattern out of mahogany that was used to create a cast-iron plate on the front of a reproduction 1770 stove, or “warming machine.”

At times, the inventory was slow to reveal its meaning. Pritchard and Baum-garten were confounded by an item in the ballroom. An old transcript of the inventory listed eight “stocker” brackets. Checking the original manuscript, they determined the word was not “stocker” but “stockoe,” a variant spelling of “stucco.”

“What is so persuasive about the inventory and its related documents,” Hood wrote in his 1991 book The Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, “is the great particularity of detail, the internal consistency, the frequent corroboration of the same items from different sources, the clear proof that the men took pains to amend and correct the working copy of the inventory in many places.” Inexpensive items like bottle labels were listed as well as items of considerable value such as coach horses and pipes of Madeira. The inventory noted the title and location of each volume in the library.

The efforts of Colonial Williamsburg’s curators and tradespeople did not entirely avert some grumbling, even from staff. “During the first week after the Palace reopened,” Pritchard said, “a curator overheard an interpreter telling guests, ‘I’m sorry you weren’t here when the Palace was pretty.’”

Ultimately, however, guests came to appreciate the refurbished Palace as both beautiful and historically accurate. The process of refurbishing it became a model for curators across the country. “This project taught people how to really read and analyze an inventory and not just furnish with antiques,” said Pritchard. “It was revolutionary.”

“Every single item that was installed was done so for a well-documented reason,” said Kim Ivey, then an assistant registrar and now textiles curator.

The work on the Palace resulted in a more accurate representation not only of how the Palace looked but also of how its occupants lived and worked. A desk in the dining room, for example, indicated that the governor didn’t just eat there, but that he also conducted business there.

“The Palace compound,” Hood wrote, “encompassed a great range of spaces, from the most ceremonial, which were furnished with brilliant symbols of the crown — coats of arms, weapons, flags — to the least ceremonious, such as the ‘Small Room Adjoyning to Poultry House,’ containing only one old mattress and two old blankets for the slave assigned guard duty over the livestock and poultry.”

The reopening in 1981 did not mean the study of the Palace came to end. Scholars continue to learn more about the building. In 2019, for example, the hundreds of original and reproduction muskets that adorn the great hall and stairway hall were temporarily removed so that the walls, which had been a dark walnut color since the building opened in 1934, could be repainted. New research showed that 18th-century arms displays were on walls painted light colors — and that’s now the case at the Palace.

Image by Darnell Vennie/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

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