Colonial Williamsburg is among the United States’ most illustrious historic tourist sites. But Williamsburg, Virginia, was like any other American town in the early 20th century with the exception of retaining a few dozen structures that dated to the colonial era. Until the world’s richest family agreed in the late 1920s to underwrite a restoration of the original colonial Virginia, Williamsburg lacked the coherent landscape necessary to envelope the tourist in a believable setting in which the story of the nation’s youth could be narrated. No few tourists today are surprised to learn that most of the town’s “historic” buildings were, in fact, painstakingly re-created, sparing no attention to detail, as explained in Anders Greenspan’s essay in American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition. Although most of the town had to be rebuilt, the two photos below show how the project also had to erase the accretions of time that had, to purists, defaced buildings such as the  ca. 1740 Prentis Store, which served in the early auto age as a service station. By the end of the 1930s Williamsburgers may well have felt lost in their own town, a place that would have been more familiar to Lord Dunmore or Patrick Henry if they could have returned from the grave. Although the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation certainly does not hide the fact of its artifice, today the carefully tended tourist site succeeds in creating the illusion that its townscape’s pedigree is unbroken since the days of tricornes and perukes.

Prentis Store before restoration, ca. 1928 (erroneously labeled Barber and Peruke Maker’s Shop). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USW33-026185-C DLC

Prentis Store after restoration, ca. 1931 (erroneously labeled Barber and Peruke Maker’s Shop). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USW33-026181-C DLC

For a modern view of the Prentis Store, click here.

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