Issue: Summer 2015

Discover Richmond & Williamsburg

Virginia State House was transformed into U.S. Capitol for Lincoln.

History can be an adventure in a book, on the screen or on a vacation.  When I heard Williamsburg, Virginia, had been selected for a college mini-reunion, up popped a distant memory of an elementary school film about Colonial America and the trip took on a life of its own beyond the chance to renew old acquaintances.  I recalled that I was enthralled with the idea of townspeople recreating colonial life and visiting such a place became a lifelong dream. 

With a little research on filming in the area, the trip expanded to include nearby Richmond.  Both that city, Williamsburg and surrounding towns had been used extensively as locations for such recent films and television series as award winning Lincoln, John Adams and the new AMC series, Turn.

Daniel Day Lewis won an Oscar for his portrayal of Lincoln

With the help of the Virginia Film Office, we were off on our discovery tour. First stop Richmond, capitol of the Confederacy, and a visit to the Civil War Museum.

The museum's interactive displays illustrated and recounted the toll the war took in the South.  History came alive as the story of the Civil War was told for future generations. 


The beautiful, tranquil setting on the banks of the James River was in stark contrast to what the city had endured.  The experience was unexpectedly moving as the tragedy of that war fought so long ago became real. 

 As a result of the devastation of war, much of Richmond had to be rebuilt after 1865 with one notable exception-the Virginia State House. Designed by Thomas Jefferson, old photographs show a bombed city surrounding the classic building. It's ironic that Steven Spielberg chose the state house to replicate the Union capitol of Lincoln's presidency.  However, a tour of the building led by gracious and knowledgeable docents soon dispelled any misgivings.  They shared stories of the nation's early founding fathers intermingled with anecdotes of Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Fields and Tommy Lee Jones on location.

The exterior of the State House was used and a replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington's side portico was painstakingly recreated. Trees and other foliage brought it and movie magic transformed the Capital of the Confederacy to the Capitol. Interior scenes used the State's Senate Chambers which required no set decoration.  For here the past is real-except for hiding 21st century technology required conduct today's Virginia state business.

Since 1788, the Virginia General Assembly, the oldest legislature continuously operating in the Western Hemisphere has convened in Virginia's State House.  Designed by Thomas Jefferson, it was the first public building in the New World constructed in the Monumental Classical style.

Jamie Bell, Kevin McNally and Burn Gorman in Turn: Washinton' Spies (2014) Photo by Frank Ockenfels

Being in the Old Hall where the Bill of Rights was not only ratified but proposed by Virginian George Mason surrounded by statues and busts of such notables as Patrick Henry, Meriwether Lewis, and George Mason, the past became present.  In the 1700's, Virginia was at the heart of the country and where the revolutionary patriots' desire for independence fermented.  After all, it was at Jamestown in 1608, years before the Pilgrims landed, where this country began. 

 Leaving Richmond, we visited Shirley Plantation and Westover Plantation, two historic properties that were spared by the Union troops as they were considered essential to the war effort and used to house wounded troops or for their strategic location on the James River between Williamsburg and Richmond. Both plantations had been used as locations for Turn and John Adams and have remained in the same families for generations. Shirley Plantation is the oldest family-owned business in North America dating to 1638.

Westover Plantation

Bringing film crews into these historic properties create challenges.  "It's a delicate balance for old houses, as upkeep is frightfully expensive so the extra revenue is always welcome, but the impact of hundreds of people and very heavy equipment in and out for days at a time can be very damaging to these beautiful old properties.  One time I found a carpenter drilling into my 250+ year old wooden wall panels. The poor man had simply forgotten he was not on a warehouse set!" recalled Andrea Erda, great granddaughter of Richard Crane who acquired Westover Plantation in 1921.

Shirley Plantation used for both Turn and John Adams is still a working plantation.

Again, a step from the present into the past.  Established in the late 1600's, situated far out into the countryside each plantation provided its own sustenance primarily through the efforts of their slaves. When judged by 21st Century standards, it's hard to reconcile that many of the great minds of the day, the enlightened thinkers behind our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, were also slave owners.

"Washington" reviews his "troops" in a Williamsburg reenactment.

 Continuing on our time travel adventure, we arrived in Williamsburg as the Colonies were fighting for their independence.  Today it is a recreation of the original town that was the first capitol of Virginia until at Thomas Jefferson's urging, it was moved to Richmond. Townspeople  literally "live in the past" to the delight of visitors who pay $40 for a day pass and help tell the story of what Colonial life was at that time.  The visit fulfills the fantasy of stepping back in time. 

The story of the "new" Williamsburg began in 1926, when the rector of Bruton Parish Church, Reverend Dr. W. Goodwin, shared his dream of preserving the city's historic buildings with philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Rockefeller and Goodwin began a modest project to preserve a few of the more important buildings. Eventually, the work progressed and expanded to include a major portion of the colonial town, encompassing approximately 85 percent of the 18th-century capital's original area.

Rockefeller gave the project his personal leadership until his death in 1960, and it was his quiet generosity of spirit and uncompromising ethic of excellence that guided and still dominates its development. He funded the preservation of more than 80 of the original structures, the reconstruction of many buildings, and also the construction of extensive facilities to accommodate the visiting public.

In the preservation of the setting of Virginia's 18th-century capital, Mr. Rockefeller and Dr. Goodwin saw an opportunity to ensure that the courageous ideals of the patriots who helped create the American democratic system live on for future generations.

And so it was that generations of school children had their first real glimpse of Colonial life through the early educational films created by the foundation.  Today that filming tradition continues, in Williamsburg and surrounding sites for authentic locations depicting life in America in the 1800's.

"TURN" filmed at two historic locations in Williamsburg; Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area and on the campus of the College of William & Mary.  The filming in Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area was at the Governor's Palace, which was the official residence for the Royal Governors of the Colony of Virginia, as well as home to two of Virginia's post-colonial governors, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.  This was only the second time a large-scale production has been allowed to film in the historic location, which previously hosted the filming of "John Adams." 

Time does march on, but in this corner of the world, time stands still.

Scenes from Turn were filmed at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.