Colonial Williamsburg Foundation History

Address:
P.O. Box 1776
Williamsburg, Virginia 23187-1776
U.S.A.

Telephone: (757) 220-7286
Toll Free: 800-HIS-
Fax: (757) 220-7325

Website:
Non-Profit Company
Incorporated: 1928
Employees: 3,500
Sales: $193.8 million (2000)
NAIC: 712110 Museums; 712120 Historical Sites; 721110 Hotels (Except Casino Hotels)and Motels; 722110 Full-Service Restaurants

Company Perspectives:

Our mission: To help the future learn from the past by preserving and restoring eighteenth-century Williamsburg and by engaging, informing, and inspiring people as they learn about this historic colonial capital, the events that occurred here, and the diverse peoples who helped shape our new nation.

Key Dates:

1926:
Restoration of Williamsburg begins.
1932:
Museum opens to the public.
1957:
Visitors per year exceeds one million.
1970:
Colonial Williamsburg, Inc. and Williamsburg Restoration, Inc. merge to form the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
1976:
CWF expands fund-raising effort.
1983:
A hotel subsidiary formed.
1999:
"Enslaving Virginia" exhibit garners unprecedented publicity.

Company History:

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation operates the oldest and largest (174 acres) outdoor living history museum in the United States. With 88 original and more than 50 restored historic structures, Colonial Williamsburg is often considered the epitome of the historic preservation movement. More than a million people visit Colonial Williamsburg every year. Created in the 1920s and 1930s, Colonial Williamsburg is the ancestor of all American theme parks.

Patriotic Origins

Williamsburg, named after King William III of England, was the capital of the Virginia colony from 1699 to 1780. Its orderly streets were laid out by Royal Governor Francis Nicholson. Before Thomas Jefferson relocated the Virginia capital from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1781, he and other patriots, including George Washington and Patrick Henry, frequented its streets. Williamsburg was the cultural, social, and political center of the colonial world. It is home to the second oldest college in the United States, the College of William and Mary--Jefferson's alma mater.

The leader of the movement to restore this city to a pre-revolutionary grandeur was Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin, the rector of Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church and religion professor at the College of William and Mary. He unsuccessfully approached Henry Ford before finding a sponsor, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. By various accounts, Williamsburg was one of his most rewarding projects. He would also leave it a $60 million endowment.

The reconstruction or "restoration" of Colonial Williamsburg began in 1926. The project was organized in 1928 as two corporations. Colonial Williamsburg, Incorporated had a historical and educational mission and owned designated historic properties. The Williamsburg Holding Company was in charge of the construction, maintenance, and management of the project. It also owned and operated commercial properties. Williamsburg Holding was renamed Williamsburg Restoration, Incorporated in 1934.

Work on the landscaping began in 1931. The restored gardens, designed by Arthur Shurcliff, inaugurated the revival, though later archeological discoveries proved them too flowery to be considered truly authentic. The holly maze in the gardens at the Governor's Palace, while lacking in historical evidence, has nevertheless proved to be enormously popular with visitors.

Colonial Williamsburg Opens in 1932

The museum opened in 1932 with about 100 employees. Six "appeals"--history, research, gardens, trades, collections, and architecture--were to attract the American public. The Raleigh Tavern also opened in 1932, its hostesses dressed in colonial clothes (they were paid between 30 and 40 cents an hour). The practice of costumed interpreters plying 18th-century crafts began in 1936 with a blacksmith hammering out horseshoes for souvenirs. Attendance steadily grew: 31,000 people visited the park in 1934; this figure more than tripled in the next two years.

Williamsburg was chosen for restoration because its downtown area had been less developed than those of Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities with patriotic associations. Nevertheless, more than 450 modern buildings were demolished in the first nine years of its restoration. By 1937, an estimated $14 million and five million man-hours had been spent on the project.

Although rooted in the past, Colonial Williamsburg was already beginning to show a sense of business innovation. One source described its licensing program, which began in the 1930s, as the oldest city in the country. Buffalo, New York's Kittinger Co. Inc. began reproducing furniture from Colonial Williamsburg's collection in 1936. (It lost the license to Baker Furniture Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1990.)

Colonial Williamsburg had more than 1100 employees at the dawn of the 1950s. Employment exceeded 1,800 by the close of the decade, when operating revenues were $9.6 million. Hostesses' wages were approaching $2 an hour in the 1960s; mostly married women held this prestigious job.

Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg numbered 600,000 visitors in 1952; more than half paid for admission to the historic buildings. The visitor count exceeded one million by 1957 as Colonial Wiliamsburg rose to national prominence as a family tourist destination. In the 1960s, CWF acquired Carter's Grove, a nearby 18th-century plantation, from Archibald and Mollie McCrea. The house at Carter's Grove is maintained as an example of the Colonial Revival of the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1969, in order to head off the development of nearby "parasitic" businesses such as low-rent pottery warehouses, CWF sold the Anheuser-Busch Corporation much of the Carter's Grove land. This would become the site of Busch Gardens, a bona fide amusement park with few historical aspirations, as well as the upscale planned community of Ford's Colony.

CWF Formed 1970

Colonial Williamsburg, Incorporated and Williamsburg Restoration, Incorporated merged in 1970 to form the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Colonial Williamsburg had 1.4 million visitors in 1971 when operating revenues were nearly $26 million. The number of employees soon reached 3,500.

A licensing agreement circa 1971 allowed Wedgwood to reproduce a historic plate. Colonial Williamsburg Co. was the for-profit company that supported the foundation through such deals.

Operating revenues were $46.3 million in 1976. In the previous fifty years, the Rockefeller family had given Colonial Williamsburg $100 million. However, rising costs edged CWF into massive operating deficits. Like other tourist attractions, Colonial Williamsburg suffered during the gasoline shortages of the 1970s.

In the mid-1970s, CWF began to look beyond its endowment and its admission, hotel, and restaurant sales for financial sustenance. It solicited individuals and corporations for support, much like a private college; CWF recruited Roger Thaler, an attorney from Duke University, who led the fund raising effort.

In 1976, Reader's Digest founders DeWitt and Lila Bell Wallace gave CWF $5 million to fund the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery, which opened in 1984. To meet the requirement that only 18th-century buildings be visible, the 85,000-square-foot gallery was built almost entirely underground (the half story above ground was hidden behind the Public Hospital). The Wallaces' philanthropy was not limited to one building. They sponsored the restoration of the Public Hospital, and in 1981 they established the Wallace Fund for Colonial Williamsburg to provide annual operating funds for CWF's museums and educational programs. In 2001, the New York attorney general dissolved this fund, transferring $60 million of Reader's Digest Association Inc. stock and other assets directly to CWF.

Improving in the 1980s and 1990s

Revenues reached $64.4 million in 1981. A separate hospitality subsidiary, Colonial Williamsburg Hotel Properties, Incorporated, was formed in 1983 to operate the hotels and restaurants.

CWF launched a $75 million capital improvement program in the mid-1980s, its first in more than 25 years. This included restoration of a historic public hospital (the first mental hospital in the United States), a blacksmith shop, and a tavern; the addition of hotel rooms; and an update of the telephone and hotel reservation systems.

At the time, Colonial Williamsburg employed about 2,800 people, plus another 1,200 seasonal workers during the summer. In 1986, CWF had overall revenues of $97 million derived from ticket sales ($18 million), hotels, several restaurants, publishing ventures, reproduction furniture sales, and the Merchants Square shopping center. The Wallace Fund, which was worth $159 million, produced $18.8 million in interest income; donations accounted for $8.3 million of revenues.

Revenues were $136.1 million in 1994. Colonial Williamsburg had 3,500 employees in the mid-1990s, nearly double the town's Revolutionary period population. Some of these were historical interpreters--guides dressed in period garb. Some performed 18th-century trades in authentic shops, selling wares such as candles. Colonial Williamsburg pitched a variety of modern merchandise ranging from furniture to Christmas CDs at on-site gift shops and in a glossy catalog with a circulation of more than one million.

However, attendance was declining as the number of competing destinations multiplied. With the help of a Richmond advertising agency, Just Partners, CWF aired a series of TV ads that parodied the famous "I'm going to Disneyland" commercials with historical figures like Patrick Henry instead of celebrity jocks.

In 1998, CWF posted its first surplus since 1990. Still, at 940,000 visitors a year, attendance was down 25 percent from its peak of 1.2 million in 1988. CWF was partnering with nearby attractions like Busch Gardens to help pitch the Hampton Roads area as a family tourist destination in competition with Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Disney World. The foundation was also proposing to close Colonial Williamsburg's streets to those not purchasing a one day ($25), two-day ($29), or ($33) season pass, which allowed holders to visit most indoor exhibits. However, this proved legally unworkable, since these streets were in fact public property.

The dramatic "Enslaving Virginia" program, launched in March 1999, brought Colonial Williamsburg unprecedented worldwide media attention. In the preceding years, more attention had been placed on representing the lives of all strata of colonial society. A slave market had been restored five years earlier, and slave quarters were recreated at Carter's Grove in 1989.

75th Anniversary in 2001

Colonial Williamsburg celebrated its 75th anniversary throughout 2001 and 2002. In early 2002, CWF began offering schools "electronic field trips" produced in its new TV studio.

The New York Times reported that CWF and other nonprofits were attending licensing trade shows alongside Hollywood studios and large corporations. During the year, the foundation licensed blueprints to some of its buildings to Wilmington, North Carolina, home designer William E. Poole. CWF's total licensing income--from 4,000 different products--was about $10 million a year. The brand had been extended into two furniture lines: the reproduction-oriented Reserve Collection and the more modern line called Pure, Simple, Today. Lane Home Furnishings was the partner in this venture.

Principal Subsidiaries: Colonial Williamsburg Co.; Colonial Williamsburg Hotel Properties Inc.

Principal Competitors: Busch Gardens; Old Salem; Plimoth Plantation, Inc.; Walt Disney Parks & Resorts; Six Flags, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • Ashenburg, Katherine, "Williamsburg Rethinks History," New York Times, September 24, 2000.
  • Barnes, Julian E., "Nonprofits Expand Their Universe of Products," New York Times, June 13, 2001, p. C1.
  • Buchanan, Lee, "Lane to Roll Out Williamsburg Collection; Licensing Program Also Includes Accessories, Lighting, Rugs," HFN, June 7, 1999, p. 19.
  • Buchanan, Patricia, "Marketing 1000: Janet Kane," Advertising Age, October 8, 2001, p. 41.
  • Campbell, Helen J., Diary of a Williamsburg Hostess, New York: Putnam, 1946.
  • Campbell, Tom, "Kittinger Loses Prestigious Line of Furniture," Business First of Buffalo, June 25, 1990, pp. 1f.
  • Cohn, Meredith, "Colonial Williamsburg CEO to Leave in June," Virginian-Pilot, March 5, 1999, p. D3.
  • Gattuso, Greg, "Back to the Future," Direct Marketing, December 1993, p. 32.
  • Goodwin, W.A.R., "The Restoration of Colonial Williamsburg," National Geographic Magazine, April 1937, pp. 402-43.
  • Greenspan, Anders, Creating Colonial Williamsburg, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.
  • Handler, Richard and Eric Gable, The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.
  • Huxtable, Ada Louise, The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, New York: New Press, 1997.
  • Kopper, Philip, Colonial Williamsburg, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986.
  • McCaffrey, Meg, "American History Redux Via Virtual Field Trips," School Library Journal, April 2002, p. 32.
  • Straszheim, Deborah, "Blacks at Colonial Williamsburg Say They Feel Like Slaves," Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, September 8, 1999.
  • Whitson, Brian, "Developer Bases New Residence Patterns on Historic Williamsburg, Va. Houses," Daily Press (Newport News), June 19, 2001.
  • "Williamsburg Hotels, Restaurants Lose Money; Some Funds Help Support Nonprofit Foundation," Roanoke Times, June 16, 1997, p. C3.
  • "Williamsburg Officials Wary of Closing Area to Public But They Are Still Willing to Consider Limiting Access to the Historic Streets," Virginian-Pilot, May 24, 1997, p. B2.
  • "Williamsburg Would Not Be Alone in Charging to Enter Historic Area," Virginian-Pilot, May 25, 1997, p. B5.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 53. St. James Press, 2003.

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