"An Elegant Seat" Building and Rebuilding the Governor's Palace

Consider the irony. The most prominent house in this seedbed of democracy has always been its residence for the royal governor.

Perhaps it was fated to be the focus of disputes between the Crown’s representative and its colonial government. At the moment of its conception, Governor Francis Nicholson expected the Burgesses to raise the money required to build his house so they put him off for several years, noting that “the Country at this time is not in a condition to sustain so great a charge.” In 1706, the less heavy-handed Edward Nott achieved a fateful compromise on funding. That year, the Burgesses agreed that this expensive project would not be paid for out of existing revenues but rather, through a new tax, to be collected on imported liquor and slaves. The story of Williamsburg’s most beautiful house, in other words, has its origin in the colony’s ugly involvement with chattel slavery.

With that inauspicious source of funding secured, the Assembly contracted with Henry Cary to supervise construction. Cary was a planter and a gentleman who had recently completed the new colonial Capitol and the jail at the east end of town. The specifications for the governor’s house required it to be fifty-four feet deep and forty-eight feet wide with a vaulted cellar, sash windows, and a slate roof. It would be the largest and best finished residence in Williamsburg by a wide margin. But by 1708, Cary had expended the entire allotment of £3,000 without completing the work. When Alexander Spotswood arrived in 1710 to find the money for his house spent but no more than a brick shell completed, he demanded that the Assembly appropriate an additional £1,560 for its completion, while also directing improvements to the landscaping, including a forecourt and gardens. It was likely Spotswood who caused the great gate in front of this court to be built with its crowning lion and unicorn, the emblems of the United Kingdom.

The governor attended to the smallest details of design and construction when they concerned the public image of the crown. In 1711, William Byrd went to visit him but, not finding him at home, located him at the Palace, still a construction site, where he was shown “several of the Governors contrivances, and particularly that for hanging the arms.” In the following year, the Governor’s Council, finding Cary’s practices to be “extravagantly chargable and expensive,” dismissed Cary from his role as overseer. Spotswood himself soon took on this role, ostensibly as a means to save the colony money. As the project dragged on and the governor continued to request new funds from the Assembly, some burgesses and members of the Governor’s Council began to lose patience, accusing him of wasting the colony’s resources on his own architectural indulgence. In 1722, Governor Spotswood finally completed the project, including its elaborate gardens, just in time for him to be replaced by Hugh Drysdale. For some contemporary chroniclers of Williamsburg, Spotswood’s Palace was one of a very few creditable buildings in the capital. A dismissive Edward Kimber sniffed, “There is nothing considerable in it, but the College, the Governor’s House, and one or two more, which are no bad Piles.”

In 1749, the Governor’s Council sought to improve the palace, finding it to be in “ruinous Condition,” though this description may have exaggerated its state for political purposes. James Wray and Richard Taliaferro, two Williamsburg builders, surveyed the building and estimated that £1,259, 6s. would be enough to put it good order. Most significantly, those improvements included the ballroom and supper room wing to the rear of the existing building, two public amenities whose addition made the palace a local example of a British trend in gentlemen’s houses of the period.

While the changes to the Palace clearly enlarged it, they also updated its interior finishes. The marble mantels in the entry and the parlor are of a style current in the mid-eighteenth century. The parlor mantel, for example, is very similar to one installed at Eltham Lodge, in Kent, England, in 1752. It is likely that decorative woodwork throughout the house was improved at this time, too. Several older houses across Williamsburg received new wainscoting, mantels, and cornices in the 1750s and 1760s, including the two nearest neighbors of the Governor on Palace Green, the Robert Carter House and the Thomas Everard House. However extensive, this work must have been substantially complete by the fall of 1752, when Governor Robert Dinwiddie hosted a ball at the Palace in honor of the King’s birthday.

Extensive though these changes were, they were not the last. Later governors continued to make improvements, including the bachelor Lord Botetourt, whose intended installation of new wallpaper with gilt papier-mâché borders was incomplete at his death in 1770. This work was completed by his successor, Lord Dunmore, in the supper and ballroom wing.

John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, was the last royal appointee to occupy the governor’s mansion. During the American Revolution, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, the first two elected executives of Virginia, both stayed in the house for a time. Jefferson, true to form, took up the mantel of improvement, proposing the make extensive changes to the building, including the addition of a massive portico on its south side, remaking the old palace for the king’s representative as a temple of democracy. His plans were not executed, however, before the capitol of Virginia moved to Richmond in 1780. The relocation of the seat of government concluded its time as a gentry residence and it was converted to a hospital for Revolutionary War wounded. In 1781, the palace, the city’s most prominent symbol of royal authority, burned to the ground, filling the cellar with the debris of its colonial-era importance.

Colonial Governors

The Governor’s Palace, the official residence of the crown’s representative in Virginia, was first occupied by a royal governor in 1768. Previously, five lieutenant governors lived in the Palace as deputies to the full governors who remained in England. As relations between Britain and her American colonies worsened, they were succeeded by two full royal governors and two governors elected by the Virginia General Assembly under the Constitution of 1776.


Alexander Spotswood (1710-1722) took up residence in the Palace about 1716 while the building was still under construction. In addition to overseeing the completion of the Palace, Spotswood was involved in the construction of the Powder Magazine, levelling the town’s streets and rebuilding the college and church buildings. Spotswood was also interested in rebuilding his family’s fortune and status which had fallen with the execution of his grandfather, Sir Robert Spotswood. Several letters between Spotswood and his cousin John demonstrate their desire to restore the family to prominence.

Alexander Spotswood letter to John Spotswood, 1718 September 3 (MS1948.2 Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library) John Spotswood was the cousin of Alexander. In this letter, Spotswood discusses the family crest and wishes to know if his cousin has altered it in any way.

Hugh Drysdale (1722-1726) administered Virginia during a period of relative peace and prosperity and was well-liked.

William Gooch (1727-1749) played a key role in the passage of the tobacco inspection act of 1730 which was designed to raise the quality of Virginia tobacco reaching the English market. In 1741, he participated in the Cartagena expedition where he was injured in the ankle by a cannonball. Health issues forced him to return to England in 1749.

Robert Dinwiddie (1751-1758) staunchly defended British claims to the Ohio country. In 1753, he sent George Washington on a diplomatic mission to the French in Ohio to demand they withdraw from his king’s lands. During the ensuing French and Indian War, he often clashed with the legislature over his demands for funds to vigorously prosecute the war. Due to failing health, he resigned his office in 1758.

Francis Fauquier (1758-1768) took over the prosecution of the French and Indian War from Dinwiddie and faced off with the Burgesses during the period of escalating imperial tensions occasioned by the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts. He died in office in 1768.

Francis Fauquier letter to John Stanwix, 1760 May 3 (MS2001.1 Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library) Fauquier writes concerns the raising and training of troops for service in the French and Indian War.


Norborne Berkeley, Baron de Botetourt (1768-1770), was the first royal governor to reside in the Governor’s Palace. Berkeley had been elevated to the rank of Baron following his petition for that position which had been in abeyance since the fifteenth-century. His posting was short-lived as he died in Virginia on October 15, 1770.

Case of Norborne Berkeley, Esq. in relation to the Barony of Botetourt... (MS2004.2 Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library) The barony of Botetourt had been in abeyance since the 15th-century until Berkeley was elevated to the rank of Baron following his successful lobbying effort.

John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore (1771-1776), was the last governor to reside in the Palace at Williamsburg. He fled the Palace on June 8, 1775 during the tensions following the seizure of the gunpowder from the Magazine. He remained in Virginia until his defeat at Gwynn’s Island the following year.

Patrick Henry (1776-1779) was the first governor of the state of Virginia. During his tenure, Lord Dunmore was finally driven out of Virginia and George Rogers Clark defeated Henry Hamilton in the Illinois country. On May 20, 1779, Henry wrote instructions to John Rogers concerning the transportation of Clark’s prisoners to Williamsburg.

Patrick Henry letter to John Rogers, 1779 May 20 (MS1937.4 Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library) Henry writes concerning the transfer of British prisoners from the Illinois country to Williamsburg.

Thomas Jefferson (1779-1781) was governor for just eleven days when the legislature voted to move the government to Richmond. The government was moved because Williamsburg’s situation left it vulnerable “to the insults and injuries of the publick enemy.” In April of 1780, the government convened in the new capital of Richmond. Williamsburg’s tenure as the state’s capital, which had begun in 1699, was at an end.

Thomas Jefferson letter to the Board of Trade, 1780 March 23 (Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library) Jefferson informs the Board that a warship will be arriving to transport the Board’s papers and furniture to Richmond where the government will convene in April.


By the summer of 1930, exposed foundations of the Capitol and Raleigh Tavern were giving way to the first reconstructions along Duke of Gloucester Street. As attention turned to the site of the Governor’s Palace, Fiske Kimball, a member of Williamsburg’s Advisory Committee of Architects, recommended that an archaeologist be hired to oversee the work.

At left: The cellar is the only portion of the Palace construction to survive a catastrophic fire on the night of December 22, 1781. Here, hired excavators remove debris which filled the cellar as the building collapsed in the aftermath.. August 1930. (L-422) At right: Fully excavated, the Palace cellar is revealed in this image to match the “Jefferson Plan”, executed in 1779 by the newly elected governor. Foundations shown here include the original cellar, as well as the Ballroom and Supper room, both later additions. (N-1863). Images copyright The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The role of an archaeologist was not easily defined in the 1930s. Excavation in Williamsburg was limited almost exclusively to recovering brick foundations for reconstruction, and so was overseen by architects. Historical Archaeology, focused on daily life in the recorded past, was not yet a discipline. It surprised no one, therefore, when the archaeologist chosen to fill the post in Williamsburg was plucked from the sands of Egypt and the Sakkarah Expedition.

Telegram announcing the discovery of Palace foundations (Corporate Archives, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library) This “breathless” telegram was sent by architect William Graves Perry to Rockefeller aide Arthur Woods on July 2, 1930—three days after excavation began. It announces the discovery of the Palace foundation beneath the 1870 “Whaley School.” The rear wall of the Mattey School was found to rest on the front wall of the Governor’s Palace.

Prentice Duell brought several important qualities to the Governor’s Palace excavation. In the post-Tutankhamen frenzy of the late 1920s, he contributed gravitas and exoticism to the project. Perhaps more importantly, Duell brought an archaeologist’s eye and way of thinking. Recognizing that the catastrophic fire which consumed the Palace in December 1781 would result in a vertical, three-story collapse, he instructed pick-axe wielding excavators to note carefully the locations of architectural elements. Black and white dressed stone found scattered through the center of the rubble-filled cellar is, today, interpreted in the marble floor in the reconstructed hall. Fragments of the parlor chimney piece were recovered, reassembled, and reinstalled one story above their place of discovery.

Duell expanded the collection of artifacts beyond those useful for architectural reconstruction. Under his direction, workmen screened mountains of excavated fill, saving 50 crates of small finds, ceramic sherds, and glass fragments. These were displayed in classrooms of the adjacent high school.

Armorial Chinese porcelain plate (Colonial Williamsburg Archaeological Collections 01082-20AA.) When the last Royal Governor of the Virginia Colony, John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, fled Williamsburg in 1775, he left behind many personal and household goods including this custom designed Chinese export porcelain armorial dinner service.

Field Superintendent Herbert Ragland oversaw excavation of exploratory trenches across the Palace grounds, uncovering garden walls, pathways, brick drains, and foundations of outbuildings. When laborers working in the west garden unearthed human remains in July of 1930, Dr. Aleš Hrdlička from the Smithsonian Institution boarded the train in Washington to assist with identification. One hundred and fifty-eight burials were ultimately recorded. Hrdlička identified 156 of them as male, nearly all younger than 40 years of age—a military population. Buttons recovered from roughly one-quarter of the graves were instrumental in assigning this cemetery to the Revolutionary War period, when the vacated Palace served as a hospital for the sick and wounded at Yorktown.

Transit Book 365A: Notes of the Excavations of the Site of the Colonial Governor's Palace Williamsburg, Va. By H.S. Ragland for Perry, Shaw & Hepburn, architects. (Corporate Archives, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library) Herbert Ragland, the excavation’s field superintendent, recorded daily operations, discoveries, and evolving site interpretations in this field notebook during the summer of 1930.

By the fall of 1930, four months after it began, the Palace excavation was largely complete. Though brief, this project captured evidence confirming the location, size, materials, and form of an iconic structure and its later additions. Recovered outbuilding foundations, structural elements of the gardens, drainage systems, and the cemetery contributed unrecorded details that were, in several instances, privileged over documentary sources. Perhaps more than any excavation prior to 1960, the Palace project would demonstrate the value of recovered evidence not only to support reconstruction, but to stir the public imagination.


It is easy to think of the Governor’s Palace as a single building but in fact, there have been three Palaces. The first is the building begun by Henry Cary in 1706; the second, the much enlarged and improved house for Governor Robert Dinwiddie in 1751; and the third, its 1931 reconstruction. The first two buildings demonstrated the reach of the British crown into its trans-Atlantic colonies; the third has been an icon of Virginia’s restored colonial capitol and an illustration of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s ongoing commitment to careful scholarship.

Early Design for Governor’s Palace, South Elevation Andrew Hepburn, c. 1929 (Architectural Drawings Collection, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library) Before the discovery of the Bodleian Plate, architects guessed at the appearance of the exterior. Andrew Hepburn’s elevation shows a Palace with just a single window on either side of the door and a bracketed and hooded front door.

The architects of the reconstruction of Williamsburg worked quickly. Even before the cellars were excavated, work was underway on design drawings of this key building. This work was advanced significantly in December of 1929 when a researcher, Mary Goodwin, located what she recognized as an engraving of the principal colonial buildings of Williamsburg in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. This showed, with remarkable accuracy, the impressive front of the palace, providing previously unknown details of its cupola, roof, and courtyard.

Modern Strike from the Bodleian Copperplate (Colonial Williamsburg Collections, 1980-103 (R)) This print is a modern strike of an image engraved on a copperplate formerly in the collection of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. It depicts, in remarkable detail, the appearance of the Palace, the College of William and Mary, and the Capitol in Williamsburg. It provided details about the appearance of the Palace that were essential for its proper reconstruction, including window placements, the cupola, and the entry.
Telegram, December 21, 1929 (Corporate Archives, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library) This telegram from Mary F. Goodwin only hints at the excitement that her discovery of the Bodleian Plate generated. Later, John D. Rockefeller Jr. would refer to this illustration as "the foundation upon which we have based the restoration.”

In addition to the Bodleian Plate, a few key artifacts taught historians about the appearance of the original building. The most important is the remains of the cellar itself, found archaeologically in Herbert Ragland’s excavations over the summer of 1930. The foundation walls and cellar floor paving all survived the disastrous fire of 1780 remarkably intact, preserving the original floor plan of the upper levels, the location of fireplaces, and the quality and bonding of the brick masonry.

Details of Palace Fragments, Sketchbook of Details, Singleton Peabody Moorehead, n.d. (Singleton Peabody Moorehead Collection, MS1989.23, Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library) The architects of the Palace reconstruction recorded architectural fragments from the archaeological remains with great care. Singleton Peabody Moorehead made full-scale drawings of wall bricks and a surviving gate finial, seen on this page

The completion of the archaeology provided the restoration architects—principally, Thomas Tileston Waterman—abundant new information about the appearance of the interior, as thousands of brick, iron, and marble fragments that survived the fire had been preserved in the cellar. Waterman and his colleagues pieced together shattered marble mantels and carefully examined sections of brick wall to determine the correct treatment of the masonry, including the specialized handling given to all major openings. They puzzled over the remains of cellar walls, trying to reconcile them with a plan made by Thomas Jefferson in 1779. The evidence, compared to most other buildings in Williamsburg, was abundant. But the restoration architects were missing a few key pieces of information, including anything about the interior woodwork. Their designs for the mantels, paneling, and other decorative finishes, therefore, were derived from their knowledge of English Georgian design and their recognition that the quality of this material should be commensurate with the materials they found in the cellar remains. This work, in other words, involved thoughtful speculation informed by careful study of relevant precedents.

Fragment of Center Panel of Marble Mantel (Colonial Williamsburg Archaeological Collections, 20.A) This center panel for a marble mantel was found in fragments and carefully reassembled to be the model for the mantel in the entry hall.

Since the late 20th century, several scholars have re-examined the historical record to further improve our understanding of the governor’s house. The most important document to this effort has been the 1770 inventory of goods in the palace made upon the death of Norborne Berkeley, Baron de Botetourt. This room-by-room account of the furnishings, tableware, and other movables has been a key source for the use and appearance of the palace at the end of the colonial period. With its wealth of detail, the Botetourt inventory has been a touchstone for the reconsideration of material life in the palace since the 1970s.

reconstruction & opening

By the end of the 18th-century, all that remained of the Governor’s Palace were the two Advance Buildings and various outbuildings. In May 1784, the Palace Lands became the property of the College of William & Mary and the ownership of the lands switched hands back and forth several times between the College and private residents. On June 2, 1790, Samuel Smith McCrosky purchased the lands from the College and from that point on, the two Advance Buildings served as private residences. By 1839, the ruins of the Palace’s main structure had completely disappeared and a resident looking down Palace Green saw a view like that depicted in Thomas Millington’s 1850 painting of the two Advance Buildings and the Robert Carter House situated along a horse path. The Civil War brought much destruction and looting to Williamsburg and despite the efforts of town residents to save them, the Advance Buildings were reduced to heaps of rubble. A post-Civil War photo captures a single chimney left standing. In 1870, the College erected Mattey’s Observation and Training School over part of the foundations of the Palace.

Ruins of North End of East Flanking Building, photographer unknown, circa 1865. Visual Resources Collection, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, [N507].

At the turn of the century, Williamsburg began ushering in many modern businesses and several were constructed around the Palace site. A steam laundry and a knitting mill opened in 1900 and were soon followed by Denmead’s Ice Factory and Collins Cleaning Company. The railroad station located at the end of North England Street adjoined the Palace site. After the closure of the knitting mill, the Virginia Electric and Power Company soon moved into the large structure. The town constructed a second school, Williamsburg High School, in 1921 on a site directly in front of the Mattey School. By the late 1920s, the Palace site encompassed a complex of businesses and schools serving the modern needs of town residents.

Williamsburg Knitting Mill Company, photographer unknown, circa 1900 (Visual Resources Collection, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library)
Collins Cleaning & Dyeing Company, Photo by Frank Nivison, 1932 (Visual Resources Collection, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library)

Reconstruction of the Governor’s Palace on its original foundations began in December 1931. The modern buildings on the site were gradually demolished to make room for the Palace, its outbuildings, and gardens. Only twelve years after its completion, the Williamsburg High School underwent demolition as the Palace arose directly behind it. Over the course of two and a half years, a large team of workmen, in consultation with the architectural team, undertook a meticulous re-creation of the Palace’s architectural and landscape features.

Palace Ballroom Wing Viewed from Pleached Arbor, Thomas Mott Shaw, late 1930s (Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library)

In April 1934, the Governor’s Palace opened to the public as an exhibition building. Guests initially toured an unfurnished building and gardens still under installation as part of a block ticket to visit four exhibition buildings. Special programs and a plan for interpretation gradually developed at the Palace site. In 1938, Ralph Kirkpatrick inaugurated a Palace Concert series featuring performances of colonial music in the Palace Ballroom. Costumed hostesses stationed at various intervals within the Palace began to compile historical commentaries to make tours more informative. In 1954, William O. Maxwell published “A Palace Manual” to aid in the training of Palace employees. African Americans also appeared in costume at the Palace by the 1950s and included Fleming Brown, who was well-known for his role as Major Domo. On March 8, 1946, Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower toured the Palace and its garden as part of a visit to Williamsburg after addressing a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond.

Governor’s Palace Postcard, K.S. Tanner Jr. for Colonial Williamsburg Inc. Circa 1950 (Visual Resources Collection, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library [AV2000-10-01])
Governor’s Palace Concert, Photo by Frank Dementi, 1939 (Visual Resources Collection, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library)
Top: A group photo of hostesses at of the Governor’s Palace, 1936. (UN726). Bottom left: Students from Hugh Morson High School visit the supper room in the Governor's Palace, November 1951(1951-R-1771). Bottom right: View of the Supper Room at the Governor's Palace, c. 1952 (1952-W-771).

As Colonial Williamsburg expanded in the decades to follow, the Governor’s Palace stood ready to welcome hundreds of museum visitors and dignitaries as well as to host numerous events ranging from Queen Elizabeth II’s visit in 1957 to world leaders at the Ninth Summit of Industrialized Nations hosted by President Reagan in 1983. On April 4, 1981, the Palace re-opened to the public after undergoing extensive refurnishing based upon evidence found in Lord Botetourt’s inventory. Additional interior renovation occurred in 2006 with repositioning the arms displays in the Entrance Hall from the ceiling to the walls. A new Artist-in-Residence program begun in 2010 featured Mamie Gummer portraying Charlotte, Lady Dunmore in the Revolutionary Story scene “Lady Dunmore Prepares for the Ball.” The Palace also served as the backdrop for filming of scenes for the spy television drama “TURN: Washington’s Spies” between 2014 and 2015.

Arms displayed in the entrance of the Governor's Palace, 2018. (D2018-TEG-0223-0015c)

Today, the Palace remains the most visited site at Colonial Williamsburg. A dedicated corps of interpreters strives to connect the stories of its colonial occupants, design and construction, archaeology and reconstruction, interior furnishings, gardens, and work yards with the larger interpretive themes of the Historic Area. Guided tours are offered daily until 4 pm, when guests may opt to tour the Palace at their own pace and ask in-depth questions between 4-5 pm. The Palace gardens offer the visitor an opportunity to experience such eighteenth-century landscape features such as the refurbished maze and mount, formal parterres, a canal, and falling terraces. Cooking demonstrations by the Foodways staff in the Palace Kitchen include special programs such as “Secrets of the Chocolate Maker.”

Future improvements and new programming include renovations to the Carriage House to accommodate performances by theatrical interpreters and a move of the oxen teams to the East Courtyard Stables. Evening programs, such as the long-running Palace concerts, continue beloved musical performances, while newer special events, such as the annual Garden Party, allow visitors to immerse themselves in the past by wearing period attire. Today’s visitor obtains a glimpse into a tale of two Palaces – one an eighteenth-century Governor’s house that witnessed many important events in colonial history and the other a reconstruction serving as the centerpiece of one of the nation’s largest living history museums.

The exhibit "An Elegant Seat:" Building and Rebuilding the Governor's Palace opened at the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library in autumn 2019, and ran through late-summer 2020. It was curated by Jeffrey Klee, Meredith Poole, Doug Mayo, Donna Cooke, Marianne Martin, and Jenna Simpson. The exhibit committee wishes to thank the following individuals for their assistance with the exhibition: Jason Copes, Kelly Ladd Kostro, and Pam Young at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, Tracey Gulden, Judy Marx, and Wayne Reynolds in Media Collections, Stuart Butler and Carol Kozek in Corporate Archives & Special Collections, Beth Brantingham in the Colonial Williamsburg Sign Shop, Melinda Evans of Designs by ME, and Wright Sign Service, Inc.


All images Copyright The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation