Williamsburg Confidential

No room at Virginia's most famous inn? Martin Filler discovers 25 houses at Colonial Williamsburg to check into and have an authentic (and, yes, enjoyable) experience.

A big buzzword in architecture now is "authenticity," signifying realness in a world cheapened by bogus experiences of all kinds, especially in travel. The growth of what has been called architourism, spurred by a new wave of high-style destination landmarks (Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao, for one), is paralleled by the bizarre trend of fake landmark architecture. In post-Epcot America, the epicenter has shifted from Orlando to Las Vegas, where visitors can choose among a make-believe Venice, a faux Paris, and a not-really New York.

Long before today's mockitecture, purists looked askance even at the most ambitious of American historical re-creations: Colonial Williamsburg, the former capital of Virginia, restored by John D. Rockefeller Jr. To house the well-heeled visitors there, Rockefeller opened the Williamsburg Inn in 1937. (It was handsomely renovated four years ago.) But for all those wanting to immerse themselves in the otherworldliness of Colonial Williamsburg, the inn's 25 Colonial Houses—three completely original, the rest rebuilt on their excavated footprints—are definitely the way to go.

Though the blissfully quiet Williamsburg Inn is the antithesis of raucous theme-park hotels, I was eager to stay in one of the freestanding structures scattered throughout the 301-acre historic district, which I had only recently found out were available to visitors. They range from one to 16 rooms, reflecting the town's original demographic mix, having sheltered slaves, servants, and artisans on one end of the social spectrum and merchants, legislators, landowners on the other.

Because I was there by myself, I took a smaller property, the Masonic Kitchen, across Francis Street from the Williamsburg Inn and its seriously good restaurant, the Regency Room. The Masonic Kitchen takes its name from the fact that as a rule cooking facilities used to be set away from a main residence—so that in case of fire the house would not burn down, too. It adjoins Williamsburg's Masonic Lodge, Freemasonry being the quintessential boys' club during the Age of Enlightenment, when most of our Founding Fathers were members.

From the outside, the two-story Masonic Kitchen resembles a toy house, its diminutive scale belying a surprisingly capacious interior, in which every shipshape square inch delivers. You step directly into a large living room extending the full width of the structure. The broad wooden planks of the floor are covered with a vibrantly patterned, hand-painted oilcloth, a refinement at a time when only the richest could afford woven carpets. The wood trim is painted an authentic period blue (marketed to the public by Martin Senour Paints as Williamsburg colors) and the hardware is historically correct wrought iron.

Beyond the living room is the somewhat smaller master bedroom, its inviting four-poster bed hung with spriggy printed cotton. (The fabrics used throughout the Colonial Houses were based on period documents, and many are available in the Colonial Williamsburg line by Schumacher.)

Because the Colonial Houses aren't part of a PBS reality show that tries to replicate the exact way of life in a stately Georgian home or a prairie sodbuster's hut, modern amenities are not banned here. The Williamsburg Inn was the first American hotel built with central air-conditioning, and each of the Colonial Houses is unobtrusively equipped with it as well. Every hotel guest craves cold drinks and bedtime snacks. The houses, thankfully, do not have extortionate minibars; instead most are supplied with a small fridge sequestered in an odd corner, allowing you to stash your thriftier store-bought goodies.

While many people wish to escape the present, especially on vacation, they still want CNN—and SpongeBob SquarePants to keep the kids happy. Thus hotel television sets are an absolute must. Not the least of the achievements of Williamsburg's resourceful interior designer, Susan Lindsey Winther, is her cunning way of hiding TVs in the houses (though in these times some may wish that the medium had never been invented.)

Retrofitting these little outbuildings and former shops into domestic spaces was clearly no easy task. In the Masonic Kitchen, the bathroom and closet—unknown in 18th-century dwellings, where outhouses and linen presses were standard—are on the upper story, along with a second bedroom. This makes an inconvenient morning and evening routine for those sleeping downstairs. But the charm of the house more than compensates for those trips up and down the narrow curving steps. Think of it as a Colonial StairMaster.

The compact yet not claustrophobic bathroom would be impossible to improve upon, however. Outfitted with classic white porcelain fixtures that look neither Colonial nor modern, this windowed space is the polar opposite of the hermetic, marble-slathered, fun house-mirrored, gold-plated bathrooms typical of today's hyperluxury hotels. The shower won me over with its instant torrent of full-pressure hot water streaming from the oversize Lefroy Brooks showerhead, sensibly suspended over the middle of the tub. (I hate to lean in over shin-bumping taps and spigots to get wet, don't you?)

Instead of the choking opulence of today's endemic over-the-top hotel approach, the ethos here is waste-not-want-not WASP. Forget the thousand-thread-count Frette sheets and 20-pound terry robes. Everything in the houses is of the highest reasonable quality, more than enough but not too much.

Two larger structures among the Colonial Houses—the Brick House Tavern and the Market Square Tavern—seem ideal for big groups when small and rather basic bedrooms are not a problem. Those two cheerily informal public houses, which can accommodate 32 and 22 people, respectively, would be the perfect setting for a family reunion, a get-together of old school friends, or an upscale Super Bowl party.

Grandest of the stand-alone residences is Providence Hall, which was moved to its current site from Providence Forge, Virginia, by Virginia Braithwaite Haughwout and restored in the forties. After Haughwout's death, the mansion was acquired by Colonial Williamsburg and re-restored with greater historical accuracy, and has since housed a stellar roster of international VIPs, from the Reagans to Queen Margrethe of Denmark. The rooms are majestically high-ceilinged (true of only the finest Colonial-era homes) and furnished with a bold hand that reminds us that upper-class 18th-century interiors were far from dainty.

With three large bedrooms (two further chambers are available in the adjacent carriage house), an impressive paneled dining room, two reception rooms, a basement party room, and a pretty garden, Providence Hall seems a steal at $3,000 a night (especially if divided among three couples). The only problem is that the Colonial Houses' devoted clientele makes it necessary to book the most sought-after properties like this one well in advance, meaning a full year if you're thinking of major holidays.

The saga of Williamsburg's remarkable rebirth is well known. In the twenties the Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of its venerable Bruton Parish Church, dreamed of returning the sleepy backwater to its prerevolutionary glory days by renovating its surviving landmarks, replicating demolished structures, and purging the town of its later additions. All Goodwin needed was a deep-pocketed sponsor for his visionary scheme. He found his Maecenas in Rockefeller, who became entranced by the romantic idea and funded what turned into a decadelong $68 million endeavor (almost $700 million in present-day value).

Philanthropic though Rockefeller was, he understood the project's potential as a tourist attraction—albeit a high-minded one, grounded in American history and free of the tawdry hucksterism more prevalent in the twenties and thirties than people now remember. After his enormous initial investment, he didn't want to lose money and saw the judicious commercial exploitation of Colonial Williamsburg—dignified in tone and tasteful in presentation—as a respectable way of making the operation self-sufficient.

I must admit to having been skeptical about this chestnut of Americana, educated as I was at a time when the "authentic reproduction" was an oxymoron beneath contempt. Antique was fine, modern was fine, but any attempt to make the new seem old was forbidden. By the end of my stay at Colonial Williamsburg, though, I was startled to see how much my attitude had changed.

Consider how gracefully visitors arrive at Colonial Williamsburg. Rockefeller was nothing if not thorough, and he surpassed Goodwin's initial concept by thinking of Colonial Williamsburg beyond local terms. Before plans for the comprehensive project were publicly announced, Rockefeller, always wary of being ripped off because of his name, quietly began procuring land through intermediaries. Rockefeller assembled not only property in the central historic precincts of Williamsburg but also enough significant acreage surrounding it to create an inviolable greenbelt, one of the favorite concepts of the most socially progressive regional planners of the thirties. The wisdom of wrapping Colonial Williamsburg in a forested cocoon is confirmed by the delightful approach to it, which lets you know that you are nearing something special long before you arrive.

Turning off the interstate and its typical visual chaos, you proceed along miles of unspoiled green parkway that Rockefeller either acquired or preserved from commercial development through the National Park Service. There are no golden arches, no SUV dealers, no gun-and-ammo marts or adult video stores—nothing to remind you that this is the 21st century rather than the 18th. Discreet green-and-white shields pointing the way to Colonial Williamsburg are the only signage, and your attention thus focuses on the trees that function as a verdant curtain behind which the meticulously kept town is at last revealed.

It takes a while for even the most design-conscious visitor to realize how masterfully the illusion of timelessness is carried off at Colonial Williamsburg. This is in large part because of the way that the implacable demon of modern American life, the automobile, has been so successfully kept at bay. The feat is all the more remarkable because everyone who comes here must use either a private vehicle or a bus.

Yet thanks to Colonial Williamsburg's smallish parking areas screened by shrubbery or fences, its strict prohibition of street parking, and its separation of pedestrian and motor circulation routes (an idea pioneered by Frederick Law Olmsted in New York's Central Park), your awareness of vehicular intrusions is minimized. Serious urban planners ought to take a close look at how Rockefeller and company worked this miracle.

It's amazing how quickly one adjusts to the apparent absence of traffic here, but that's only the beginning of the calming effect that even a brief stay there can inspire. Sure, it's a stage set, but it is all so harmoniously arranged that I'll take artificial perfection over natural squalor any time.

After two days of looking at not a single ugly thing, it was a shock to reenter the outside world. Though I hadn't come to scoff, I was uncertain of how I would react to what I had always considered an ersatz experience, given the impossibility of traveling backward in time. But I discovered that in a metaphorical sense, it can indeed be done.

To my pleasant astonishment, the sojourn was more interesting as an evocation of mid-20th-century America at its self-confident best than it was of the remote days of Patrick Henry. You can keep the tricornered hats, powdered wigs, and knee breeches of Williamsburg's earnest "interpreters," who explain the Colonial past to rapt tourists. I'll think of this time capsule as a comforting retreat to the secure days of my lost youth, a world that, alas, now seems more unreal than the wildest futurist fiction.

MARTIN FILLER WROTE ABOUT WINEGLASSES FOR THE NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2004 ISSUE.


A Colonial House for Any Occasion

Williamsburg's 25 private rental houses range in size from a spacious 16-room manor to a humble two-person outbuilding. If you're bringing children, the newly restored Isham Goddin Shop ($540 a night) has two bedrooms—one with a queen bed and the other with two twins—and is steps from the capitol building and the gardens. The Chiswell-Bucktrout House ($2,700 a night) has nine bedrooms with private baths, sleeps 18, and is perfect for a family reunion. For a romantic getaway, the one-story Moody Kitchen ($300 a night) has a cozy room with a wood-burning fireplace and a canopy bed. 800-447-8679; www.history.org.