John D. Rockefeller Jr. was born into riches beyond compare in American society as heir to his father’s fortune from founding Standard Oil. But John had a sense of obligation to society, deeply rooted in his strict Baptist upbringing. Why create such great wealth if not to be a steward to others? His wife, Abby Aldrich, a Mayflower descendent, felt similarly. The wedding gift she received from John, a tidy sum in a check, went to the YWCA towards a new building.
Visiting Williamsburg to see how construction of the new Phi Beta Kappa hall was progressing at the College of William & Mary, John and Abby were shown the town. Unlike the Williamsburg we know and love today, it was a patchwork of homes and farms, decrepit buildings, commercial establishments and gas stations. Electric wires ran down Duke of Gloucester Street. It was the typical American town of its time, it’s architectural history threatened by new development, its oldest commercial buildings crumbling away.
The Reverend Goodwin from the Bruton Parish Church on Duke of Gloucester Street proposed a novel idea to Rockefeller as they later walked beneath the shade of an ancient oak at Bassett Hall. Why not create a showplace of the American spirit by turning back the clock to show the world what Williamsburg once was?
After some deliberation, Rockefeller agreed. But his gifts were anonymous. They would total over $65 million over his lifetime. At the height of the Great Depression, no one was without work in Williamsburg as one by one, homes and businesses were returned to their former glory.
Among them was Bassett Hall, from 1753. The Rockefellers purchased the property and it became their favorite getaway. Compared to their other houses along the East Coast, it was understated and unpretentious. Abby filled the house with her favorite things, brought together here from their other residences. Folk art lent it a simple feel.
The casual atmosphere, where neighbors would drop in for a cup of coffee and a chat, was unlike anywhere else they spent their time. “We can walk the streets without a bodyguard,” Abby marveled.
I’d been to Colonial Williamsburg as a child, and walking the streets again this morning gave me a new appreciation for this cultural treasure. Learning, through the the interpretive tour at Bassett Hall, that today’s Colonial Williamsburg exists thanks to the generosity of the Rockefellers, added an unexpected twist, a part of the story I never knew.
Are today’s billionaires performing similar cultural and environmental rescues throughout the world? Although I worry that they don’t, I’d like to think that they do.