When the reconstructed Raleigh Tavern opened to the public on Friday, Sept. 16, 1932, it not only represented Colonial Williamsburg's first exhibition building but also a new identity for the old colonial capital and the rest of the surrounding region.
Gone was the tired, dusty old Southern town that had barely hung on after the calamitous setbacks it suffered in the Revolution and the Civil War. In its place was a newly rediscovered landmark of national importance -- one that ultimately grew into an internationally known shrine of American democratic ideals and freedom.
No one who walks through the structure today can doubt the indispensable role that Williamsburg and Virginia played in the birth of the nation.
And for 81 years, curious pilgrims have trooped through its rooms with feelings of reverence and awe.
Jefferson danced here. Washington drank here. Some of the first whispers of the American Revolution sounded within its walls.
But before anyone could conjure up that early experience of today "Revolutionary City" -- or knew what kind of economic, educational and cultural changes it would bring to Williamsburg and the rest of the Peninsula -- the nearly forgotten building had to be reconstructed.
Destroyed by fire in late 1859, the tavern where the House of Burgesses adjourned to plot independence and College of William and Mary students founded Phi Beta Kappa in the 1700s could not be rebuilt by the struggling rural backwater that Williamsburg had become a century later.
And when the restoration of the town began nearly 70 years after that, two modern brick stories stood on the site where U.S. Supreme Court John Marshall and Sen. John C. Calhoun had gathered with other national figures to honor the return of Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette in 1824.
John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s money may have brought the tavern back to life. But it was the pioneering archaeology of what was then known as the Williamsburg Holding Company that discovered and retraced the footprint of the original structure.
Detailed insurance policy sketches combined with two pre-fire drawings published in Benson Lossing's 1850 "Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution" to make it possible to recreate the tavern's distinctive exterior in detail and resurrect its famous Apollo Room.
So convincing was the reconstruction that two persons who knew it well -- including a women who had lived there as a child -- declared that it had risen from the ashes, Daily Press writer Lloyd Williams reported.
Such praise must have pleased Colonial Williamsburg's then vice-president Kenneth Chorley, who ranked the tavern along with the college's Christopher Wren Building, Bruton Parish Church, the Governor's Palace and the Capitol as the town's most important and historic structures.
"Over the place where we now stand colonial governors, patriots and statesmen have passed," said the Williamsburg restoration's original founding force, the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin.
"These memories this building restored is designed to perpetuate and recall as an inspiration to the present and future."
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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