When Middle Plantation was chosen to be the new capitol city of Virginia in 1699 there was one small problem – it wasn’t a city! At that time Williamsburg, as it was renamed, consisted only of the new college, a church, a tavern, a few stores, 2 mills, a smiths shop, and little else. But the government of Virginia was not daunted by this challenge. They had not chosen Middle Plantation because of its size or population, but for its potential. The British government of Virginia was intent on building a proper British capital in the colony and Williamsburg offered them the opportunity.
Virginia’s governor, Francis Nicholson, had previously planned the city of Annapolis, Maryland and was responsible for the original layout of Williamsburg. One Virginian wrote “that Nicholson flattered himself with the fond imagination of being the founder of a new city. He marked out the streets in many places so as that they might represent the figure of a W, in memory of his late majesty King William, after whose name the town was called Williamsburg.” Though the idea of a W shaped town may have seemed romantic in the early stages of city planning, it was scrapped in favor of a more practical layout featuring a long, wide central avenue anchored on one end by the existing college and at the other by a yet to be constructed capitol building. This main avenue, the Duke of Gloucester Street, ran west to east and was flanked by two parallel side streets, Francis Street and Nicholson Street. To keep the town from being too long and slender, the site for the governor’s house was set to the north of the Duke of Gloucester Street and was connected to that avenue by a long green that ran north to south. It was around this framework; a long dignified avenue, and an impressive tree-lined Palace Green, that the city would take shape.
Williamsburg was further shaped by another governor, Alexander Spotswood, who arrived in 1710. Spotswood built upon Nicholson’s plan by exerting his influence to make sure that the buildings that were constructed in the new capital would be as elegant as possible. Recognizing that the town’s church would have to accommodate not only Williamsburg residents but also members of the House of Burgesses and other government officials, Spotswood provided Bruton Parish with funds to enlarge the plan of their church. The new plan called for two wings which gave the building its cruxiform design.
When the colony received a shipment of weapons in 1714, it was decided to build a magazine in which to store them. Spotswood’s direction ensured that the building would be as pleasing to the eye as it was practical, with the finished magazine containing the colony’s military supplies within a pleasing eight-sided tower located in the market square.
While the church and magazine are both fine examples of Governor Spotswood’s vision and energy, it was the Governor’s Palace that appears to have felt his touch the most. Upon his arrival, Spotswood found the partially completed house not up to his standards. He devoted a lot of his energy, as well as some of his fortune, to the project. This resulted in more than an impressive house, because it also included a collection of elegant outbuildings and acres of formal gardens. An eighteenth century traveler was impressed with the resulting “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, etc. with a great number of the best arms nicely posited by the ingenious contrivance of the most accomplished Colonel Spotswood.”
More than one colonial traveler left Williamsburg with the impression that although Williamsburg not a very big town, it was a beautiful one. This beauty was not accidental; it was achieved by the vision and hard work of two of Virginia’s governors. The city plan of Francis Nicholson is still enjoyed by thousands of visitors who walk the Duke of Gloucester Street, and the vision of Alexander Spotswood is observed by all who tour the reconstructed Governor’s Palace or step into the original Bruton Parish Church or Magazine.
Written by local historian, Daniel Moore.
Photographs by local photographer, Magali de Vulpillieres