When Boston architect William G. Perry came to Williamsburg on Jan. 13, 1927, it wasn't his first visit.
But the pioneering sketches he first made as he toured the historic colonial town represented a milestone step in visualizing and promoting what became world-famous as the Colonial Williamsburg restoration.
Commissioned by the Rev. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin -- whom he'd met the previous year after stopping in Williamsburg after a duck-hunting trip -- Perry arrived at noon, according to a journal his wife later gave to the CW foundation.
Then he spent a week walking around, studying and making preliminary drawings of the town, focusing in particular on identifying the surviving 18th-century structures and assessing the potential for restoring the College of William and Mary's historic but much altered Wren Building.
What Perry didn't know as he met with Goodwin, W&M President Alvin Chandler and others was why Goodwin -- in his original letter and then in person -- insisted so strongly that the project remain quiet, notes former Daily Press editor and Williamsburg historian Will Molineux, who examined Perry's crucial role in a 2004 story for the Colonial Williamsburg Journal.
More than a year would pass, in fact, before he and his partners -- Thomas Shaw and Andrew Hepburn -- met Goodwin for lunch at New York's Whitehall Club and were introduced to John D. Rockefeller Jr.
"We've been working anonymously now for a year and half," the wealthy philanthropist said after the lunch was over.
"My first impression is that I'm grateful to the architects for not having made any inquiries as to who we are. Moreover, I believe now, from what they have done, and the pleasure I have had from meeting them, we will proceed from here."
During Perry's original visit in February 1926, he toured the town only briefly, cutting his trip short when his traveling companion had to be rushed to Richmond for an emergency appendectomy.
But his training at Harvard, MIT and the l'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris served him well during this fleeting survey, enabling him to look past the discouraging remains of the Wren Building, which he described as "much remodeled," and the dilapidated state of the George Wythe house, which he found "abandoned, its doors...open and ajar," to see a historic landscape that had "retained -- somehow -- a charming quality."
When he and his friend returned to reclaim their car later that spring, Perry met Goodwin for the first time not long after the clergyman had acquired and started to restore the Wythe house.
Though happily complimenting Goodwin on saving "this magnificent building," the 44-year-old architect also raised questions about the installation of some "inauthentic" wooden paneling. He then took measurements of the structure's missing door locks and, a few months later, sent his new acquaintance six replacements from his own collection.
That brief but cordial and productive exchange made Perry a natural candidate when Goodwin began looking for someone to produce sketches for the Rockefeller-financed restoration of the run-down Wren Building as well as drawings envisioning the restored colonial town.
Though Perry ranked as the clergyman's second choice, he soon proved himself perfect for the job, visiting the town repeatedly to not only make sketches but also take measurements at night and in secret for the still secret project. The former World War I aviator arranged for a series of important aerial photographs, too, not to mention scouring the surrounding region to visit old colonial homesteads that might provide clues for a future restoration.
Not until late that fall did the project come to a head, with Perry carrying a cumbersome collection of drawings measuring as much as 8 feet wide by train and taxi from Boston for a presentation at New York's Vanderbilt Hotel.
Meeting with Goodwin in one of the hotel's room, the pair laid the giant sketches across beds and bureau drawers turned in to makeshift easels. Then Perry was asked to leave yet remain on call while the clergyman met with the project's secret partner.
Several hours passed with Perry waiting in the hotel's lounge or outside pacing on the sidewalk. But no call ever came, Molineux notes in his story.
Not until two weeks later did Perry get word that his $2,500 commission had blossomed into one of the greatest historic restoration projects ever undertaken -- and the job of a lifetime.
--Mark St. John Erickson
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