This historic home embodies the story of Williamsburg’s rescue from decay by John D. Rockefeller and W.A.R. Goodwin. Cynthia Nothstine shares the story of the Rockefeller’s beloved country home.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Colonial Williamsburg is known for its 18th century homes and buildings, but one very special house has a foot in the 18th and the 19th centuries. Called Bassett Hall, this 18th-century home is at the center of Williamsburg’s restoration story. Cynthia Nothstine is our guest today. Cynthia, thank you for being here today.
Cynthia Nothstine: Thank you.
Harmony: And what’s your connection to Bassett Hall?
Cynthia: I’m the manager of Bassett Hall, but I have also worked at Bassett Hall for a very long time and I happen to think the house is wonderful, it’s unique and I enjoy being there and I enjoy telling the story of the house.
Harmony: So Bassett Hall is a home in Colonial Williamsburg that you can visit in the historic area. It’s on Francis Street?
Cynthia: Francis Street, yes.
Harmony: And it’s a lovely house. It’s a white farmhouse and its set way back from the road from a long driveway. It’s just so pretty to pass by. So tell me about the 18th century history of this home.
Cynthia: Actually it has history that, well, in my way of thinking it sort of encompasses Williamsburg, because we have this member of the House of Burgess building this front section and using it. Then we have from 1800 to 1839 the house belonged to Burwell Bassett and he was the nephew of Martha Washington and that’s how it got its name. And during the Civil War it was lived in by the Goodrich-Durfey family and that wedding that was held at Bassett Hall between a Confederate officer, Captain John Lee and Margaret Durfey, the best man was Captain George Armstrong Custer, a Union officer.
Then it was sold to the Smith family and the Smith family will eventually sell it to the Restoration in 1927. In the meantime, of course, the Rockefellers had become very involved in Williamsburg. They started their involvement in the late 1920s, and I don’t think they could have visualized what this project would mean to them. They were philanthropists and it intrigued them, the story of Williamsburg. Dr. Goodwin must have been a very persuasive person. Certainly people in Williamsburg thought dearly of him and he had a great idea.
Harmony: So let’s talk about that idea for people who might not be familiar with Williamsburg’s Restoration. We, of course, know that the major financial backing came from the Rockefeller family, but the man whose idea it was, the man who persuaded Rockefeller finally was Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin.
Harmony: The Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin.
Cynthia: Yes, yes.
Harmony: Let’s talk about who he was in Williamsburg and how he worked to bring Rockefeller to this project.
Cynthia: Dr. Goodwin had been in Williamsburg as a seminary student late in the 19th century. He was a Virginian. He was very, very proud of the history of Virginia and he will come back later as a minister with his family, then he leaves for a while. He goes up to Rochester and then he comes back. When he came back for the third time, he realizes that things were changing very, very rapidly in Williamsburg; that the old buildings that were left were being altered; used for other purposes. There were streetlights running down the middle of the Duke of Gloucester Street.
And Dr. Goodwin was just sort of appalled that this beautiful town was, in his view, going to be lost to modernization. He begins to think about preserving some of it and of course he does his own preservation effort with the George Wythe House. He convinces the parish to acquire it and use it as a parish house. But he also knows that he needs funding and so he looks for someone who can come and be a part of that.
He is Phi Beta Kappa and of course Phi Beta Kappa started…he’s a part of Phi Beta Kappa member and Phi Beta Kappa started at William & Mary and he knows that John D. Rockefeller Jr. is a Phi Beta Kappa, and so at a Phi Beta Kappa meeting in New York Dr. Goodwin approaches Mr. Rockefeller and said, “You know the next time you’re in the Williamsburg area can I give you a tour of the town?” And that happens and in fact Dr. Goodwin brings Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller, they brought Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller to Bassett Hall during that first tour and they go down to the Great Oak which was on the property. And they talk about the past and about Williamsburg. And Mr. Rockefeller as he’s leaving says, “Well, you know if I come back, when I come back, can we bring a lunch here and have it under the tree?”
And I think that Dr. Goodwin knew right then that Mr. Rockefeller was interested and sort of that’s where it begins. The Rockefellers were involved with the restoration of Williamsburg for almost a decade before they moved into Bassett Hall. They moved into Bassett Hall in 1936. They’re 62 years old, their children are grown, they had six children, and they had become a part of the community.
Harmony: And they just love the house and they loved coming to Williamsburg.
Cynthia: Colonial Williamsburg. Mrs. Rockefeller said it was good for her. It lowered her blood pressure just thinking about Williamsburg and once they moved in, they moved in in November of 1936, they will come here every spring and every fall for the rest of their lives.
Harmony: And Bassett Hall is unique because it is interpreted not as an 18th century structure…
Harmony: but it is still interpreted in the way that the Rockefellers had it when they lived there. I think that’s such a…it’s probably the only building in the Historic Area that’s interpreted in a century other than the 18th.
Harmony: What are some of the things you’ll see there that are unique to the time that the Rockefellers lived there?
Cynthia: Well you’re going to see of course her folk art. You’re going to see his porcelains. You’re going to see the wonderful use of color and its interesting so many of our visitors will come in and go, “Ah, what a wonderful house.” And, in a way, it’s an example of that colonial revival that kind of romantic look at the past. It’s kind of what some of our visitors want the 18th century to look like, but it really doesn’t: the chandeliers in the rooms.
And as we walk through, we tell the story of their involvement with Williamsburg because it became more and more important to them. They weren’t just people who came here and bought the town and restored it, but they actually became very involved with the people in the town. One of the things that is fun to talk about with our visitors when we go in the dining room is the entertaining that the Rockefellers did because that was sort of their forum. They had people for lunch, they had people for dinner, oh goodness, they had teachers from the schools, they had members of the community, they had their neighbors, and they had college students. They had people that they had brought there for the restoration.
And conversation was important. Mr. Rockefeller was meticulous about details, but he also was a very good listener. I think that’s how he picked up all the details.
Harmony: Bassett Hall is such a wonderful building because as you pointed out it encompasses, you know, every era of Williamsburg’s history.
Harmony: And visiting it you also get a special perspective on the restoration of Williamsburg; on why Williamsburg exists today and the affection that the Rockefellers had for the town and the project. What are visitors going to see when they come and tour Bassett Hall when they start with you? What are they going to learn about Williamsburg?
Cynthia: First of all we start with a short video that has film clips of what Williamsburg looked like before the Restoration and that is always fun for people to see. And then there’s an interview with David Rockefeller who is the only surviving child of Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller, Jr. David is 97 years old and he talks about the importance of the house to his parents and so it gives you some background.
And we have guided tours because we do tell a story. It’s a very good story, and so people don’t just walk through on their own. They’re with an interpretive staff that enjoy telling the story as much as I do, quite frankly, and it takes about 25-30 minutes. We finish up in the back of the house which was lived in and used by the Rockefeller’s servants; they kept servants in place 12 months of the year and they were a Swedish couple. And so we talk about the sort of dinners.
And you get to see the Rockefeller’s part of the house, and their servants’ part of the house and you get to learn a little bit about the mechanics of what went on to run this house. But it’s kind of interesting, one of our latest projects was to recreate and restore the servants’ hall; the place where they dined and took their leisure time. And then we often take visitors out or invite them out into the garden because the gardens were very important to the Rockefellers. There is a tea house in the garden and we suggest that they walk over and look in the tea house and then look down the vista or alleé that goes into the woods.
When the Rockefeller family gave Bassett Hall to Colonial Williamsburg, which was in 1979, they gave us the house with everything in it and 585 acres of land and it’s very special because we have a great deal of wooded property and to look down the alleé in the springtime or in the fall, those were the two times of the year that the Rockefellers came. By the way, the garden is timed to bloom in April and October.
Harmony: When they would visit.
Cynthia: When they would visit. It was through the generosity of one of their granddaughters that the garden was restored so that it blooms. Mrs. George O’Neill, Abby O’Neill, is the oldest grandchild. She’s a lady in her 80s, and she wanted people to be able to see the garden as it looked when her grandmother was alive, so it’s very, very touching.
Harmony: Cynthia, if people are planning a visit when can they come out to Bassett Hall and see all of this?
Cynthia: Bassett Hall is open three days a week; Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 9:00-5:00 p.m.
Harmony: Thank you so much for being our guest today.
Cynthia: Thank you.