Past Perfect -- An Old House Reveals Rich Past Of Williamsburg


WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - If this old house could talk, I wonder what tales it would tell.

It's a small, unpretentious cube of a house - not the sort that would have attracted a wealthy colonial planter, merchant or man of affairs.

Yet it wasn't a bad house for its time - 1750 or thereabouts - and possibly, just possibly, it might briefly have hosted someone like George Washington, Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson.

In a way, the house does talk. But the creaking, popping wood of its steep old staircase and the groans of its heavy pine floorboards tell nothing of its former occupants - not even of its original owner, whose identity has been lost. It's now known as the Orrell House, after John Orrell, who owned it from 1800 to about 1820.

Orrell House sits on Francis Street, one of the three main thoroughfares of colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. It's a comfortable location, near enough to the center of the old town to have been within easy reach of everything, yet distant enough to have escaped some of the noise, dust, muck and stench of Duke of Gloucester Street, the main route through old Williamsburg.

And it was our quarters for a short journey back in time, a sort of vicarious look at the way things were in Williamsburg about 2 1/2 centuries ago.

Thanks to the efforts of the non-profit Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the old historic district has been restored as a working model of the original 18th-century town, with homes, businesses, public houses and a population wearing period costumes and performing various ``living history'' roles. And it's all very tastefully done.

Our adventure began when I came across a brochure advertising the ``Tavern Plan,'' two nights and three days of lodging in one of two dozen 18th-century buildings available for public accommodation in Williamsburg. The buildings include homes, taverns, offices, kitchens, even a laundry, all refurbished for guest occupancy.

``Stay in lodgings furnished in the traditional manner,'' the brochure said. ``Reserve your dates now.''

So I did. But as the dates drew near I got to wondering just exactly what was meant by ``lodgings furnished in the traditional manner.'' Did that mean we'd have to draw our own water from a well? Strike a flint to light a whale-oil lamp for evening illumination? Carry a chamber pot to the ``necessary'' out in back?

I needn't have worried.

My wife and I checked in at the imposing Williamsburg Inn, a rambling old place that traditionally wins five-star ratings in the travel guides. We were directed to a bellman who rode a bicycle to the Orrell House while we followed in our car.

Inside we climbed the creaky staircase to the second floor and a pair of tiny rooms - one a bedroom with a partly canopied bed, the other a comfortable sitting room.

The house was designed as an almost perfect cube - 28 feet on a side and 28 feet high - and, curiously, it is Williamsburg's only surviving colonial-era building without shutters. The original builder, whoever he was, must have liked daylight.

The Orrell House held up better than most of Williamsburg's old buildings and required less restoration. Thus, much of it is original. The wooden floors are uneven, the doorways short enough that we had to stoop, and most of the lines of the house don't seem quite straight. But after nearly 250 years you'd expect that.

We were surprised, however, to find a telephone and a television set in each room, along with a modern private bathroom. The television sets were concealed inside wooden cabinets to preserve something of an atmosphere of antiquity, but the lights were electric, not candles or whale-oil lamps; the water was hot from the tap; and each room had air conditioning.

So much for primitive living conditions.

The bed, however, was a genuine antique. It's doubtful George Washington ever slept in it, but the sag in the mattress indicated a lot of other people had. It made me wish for a bed wrench.

(A historical note: In colonial Williamsburg it was commonplace for several guests to share a single bed in the city's taverns, or inns. Mattresses were held up by ropes strung through holes in the bed frames, and when a bed got crowded the innkeeper used a wooden ``bed wrench'' to tighten the ropes and keep the mattress firm. This led to the phrase ``sleep tight,'' which remains in use today.)

Once settled we set out to acquaint ourselves with Williamsburg.

The district includes about 140 major structures and many smaller ones clustered in an area about a mile long and up to a half-mile wide.

Careful landscaping hides the fact that it's surrounded by a modern city; the old and new Williamsburg touch directly only at Merchants Square, a shopping area on the western end of the historic district.

We spent the afternoon strolling up and down Duke of Gloucester Street, where traffic - except for wagons drawn by horses or oxen - is banned during daylight hours. We checked out the Greenhow Store (one of the original buildings), Tarpley's Store, the grocer's store and McKenzie's Apothecary (replicas), all selling modern-day versions of 18th-century merchandise ranging from soap balls to quill pens.

Admission to the stores is free. But an admission badge, for sale at the visitors' center, is required for most buildings in the historic district.

The streets emptied quickly after most of the buildings closed at 5 p.m., as they do each day.

After that the old town grew quiet - except for the taverns.

There are four taverns in the historical district - Christiana Campbell's (reputed to be a favorite of George Washington), Josiah Chowning's, Shields' and the King's Arms.

All are replicas of taverns that existed during colonial times and all serve food that resembles what might have been served during extravagant feasts in the 1700s. (The ``Tavern Plan'' accommodations package includes a dinner at any of the four taverns.)

After a feast at the King's Arms, we followed a path lined with lanterns to the old Capitol. There, seated on a wooden bench in the candlelit House of Burgesses (the restored chamber of the colonial legislative assembly), we listened to balladeers and madrigal singers perform 18th-century works.

The next morning, we returned to the Williamsburg Inn to join a two-hour walking tour (also included in the ``Tavern Plan'' package) of the historic district.

Tour stops included the restored Raleigh Tavern, where one of the first steps toward the American Revolution was taken when the House of Burgesses held a rump session there after being dissolved by the British colonial governor.

Other stops included Wetherburn's tavern, where men and women in ``living history'' roles gave convincing performances of what it was like to be a slave in colonial Williamsburg.

The tour ended at the restored Governor's Palace with its spectacular display of British muskets on the entry-hall ceiling. Afterward we managed to get lost in the holly maze in the palace garden.

That night we joined other visitors for a Colonial Army muster.

A uniformed corporal ``ordered'' us to fall in behind a piper and drummer, and we all marched together from the old powder magazine across Market Square to a military encampment on the north edge of the historic district. ``Watch out that you don't fall into the sinks (pit toilets),'' the corporal cautioned.

By the light of flaming pine knots we were given a demonstration of how the pipe and drum were used to signal commands in battle and how to load and fire the British ``Brown Bess'' musket and the American long rifle used in the Revolution.

Both were short-range, single-shot weapons. ``What you did was march up close to the enemy, fire your one shot and rush forward with fixed bayonets,'' one of the soldiers said. ``If you were lucky, you got to the enemy's trench before he had time to reload his own weapon.''

After the firing demonstration we joined the throng at Josiah Chowning's Tavern for ``gambols'' - colonial games, entertainments and ``diversions.'' Musicians in period costumes hovered around the tables singing ribald songs. Both ale and song flowed freely into the wee hours.

Then it was back to the Orrell House for a night's sleep, quieter than any modern hotel.

Staying in the old place was different, and fun. But we left with the feeling that it might have been more fun had it been more primitive, more like things really were in the old days.

But primitive accommodations aren't available, according to Evelyn Cassidy, manager of news and information services for Colonial Williamsburg. ``We find that the majority of our guests prefer 20th-century amenities even when staying in 18th-century accommodations,'' she said.

Perhaps so. But it seems a pity they couldn't have left just one old house the way it was.

You know, for the hardy folks who really want to get into living history.

Steve Raymond, formerly an editor on The Times news staff, now manages the newspaper's publishing systems. He also is the author of four books on fly fishing.

Planning a Williamsburg trip

WILLIAMSBURG - A visit to historic Williamsburg is like a trip back in time. But it still requires planning and packing.

Some tips for visitors:

-- When to go: The best times to visit Williamsburg are in the spring or fall months when winter gloom or summer heat, humidity and crowds, are absent. But even in the off-season you should be prepared to wait in line to get into some buildings or to be seated for dinner in the colonial taverns - even if you have dinner reservations (which are essential).

-- How to go: Non-stop direct air service is available from Seattle to Dulles Airport near Washington D.C. From Dulles it's about 3 1/2 hours by rental car over interstate highways to Williamsburg. Or you can fly to Chicago and take a connecting flight to Richmond, Va. Shuttle-bus service is available from Richmond to Williamsburg, a trip of about one hour, but you may still want to rent a car to visit some of the area's other attractions.

-- Where to stay: You can make reservations for the ``Tavern Plan'' ($175 per person for three days and two nights in one of the original old buildings refurbished for guest occupancy) or for other accommodation plans at the Williamsburg Inn or Williamsburg Lodge by phoning 1-800-HISTORY. Or you can book through your travel agent at one of the numerous privately operated hotels or motels that surround the Williamsburg historic district.

-- What to take: Take comfortable walking shoes, light clothing, sun block if you burn easily, and a sweater or jacket if it should turn unseasonably cool. Be sure to take rain gear. Virginia rain is impatient - instead of taking all day to fall, as it does in Seattle, it may come all at once. Take a camera and film and leave room in your bags for souvenirs.

-- Dining: Four reconstructed colonial taverns in Williamsburg offer excellent dining with food served by waiters and waitresses in colonial dress. The four taverns are Shields', Josiah Chowning's, the King's Arms and Christiana Campbell's. Reservations are a must and should be made as far in advance as possible. Call 1-804-229-2141. Reservations are not necessary for breakfast, brunch or lunch, which also are served at some of the taverns.

Tavern prices are about the same as you would expect to pay at a good restaurant in Seattle.

``Gambols'' - colonial songs, games and ``other diversions'' - are held nightly at Josiah Chowning's after 9 p.m. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis; get there early.

-- Touring tips: A visitor's badge is needed to ride the shuttle bus around the historic district and for admission to buildings. Badges are included in the ``Tavern Plan'' or the other accommodation plans available at the Williamsburg Inn or Williamsburg Lodge; the badge can be picked up upon checking in at the hotel. If you're staying elsewhere you can purchase your badge at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center, which is worth a stop in any case. The best time to tour historic buildings or see craft exhibits is right after they open at 9 a.m., or when it's raining. Crowds are smallest then.

- Steve Raymond