The Wren Building


Williamsburg’s restoration got underway in earnest with the College of William and Mary’s Wren Building, explains Louise Kale, director of the Historic Campus.

Learn more: The Wren Building


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions.

The pride of the grounds of the College of William and Mary is the Wren building – a U-shaped brick building standing at the apex of the historic campus. It’s a structure with a storied past, and here to tell us more about it is Louise Kale, who is director of the Historic Campus at William and Mary. She is not technically an employee of Colonial Williamsburg, but Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary go back, I guess, pretty much to the beginning, don’t they?

Louise Kale: Well they do, and I think of Colonial Williamsburg as a co-steward of the historic buildings at William and Mary, even today.

Lloyd: The Wren building was actually one of the first reconstructed buildings.

Louise: Yes. It was the first major restoration undertaken by the Rockefeller team. I need to back up and clarify that, while the interior of the building is a reconstructed interior, the exterior is restored. The exterior brick walls were salvaged after each of our three fires, and were salvaged again during the time of the restoration.

Lloyd: Does anyone know what caused the three fires?

Louise: The first fire, in 1705, when the building had been in use for only five years, the period of its construction, actually, was most likely due to construction flaws. Although at the time there were charges of arson, which were investigated and never confirmed.

The second fire was an accidental fire that started in a cellar room where wood was stored. It burned up into a room that was being used for a chemistry laboratory, and from there up into the room above that was being used as the college library. So, the 1859 fire was really sort of a primer on how to burn down a building.

Then in 1862, while Williamsburg was being occupied by the Union Army, the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry lit the fire.

Lloyd: That sort of makes that one for sure.

Louise: Each time, the interior of the building was gutted, the exterior brick walls – which are very thick, three feet thick at foundation level – the exterior brick walls remained standing. So when it came time to restore the building, the first job of the restoration engineers was to evaluate the strength of those walls. They determined that the walls were weakened and warped, both by age and by thermal trauma, obviously.

So the restoration built a concrete and steel framework, inserted it in the walls and under the floor, and it’s Mr. Rockefeller’s concrete and steel that are bearing the floor and roof loads today. The brick walls are only responsible for holding themselves up.

In fact, at one point in the early days of the restoration of the building, restoration workmen removed ivy from about a 10-foot section of the great hall wall, the exterior great hall wall and found, to their dismay that it was the ivy that was holding the brick wall up. So that piece of the wall had to be demolished and replaced with restoration brick.

Lloyd: I have heard of ivy holding up buildings.

Louise: Literally.

Lloyd: Despite the fires and the restoration and all the rest of that, the Wren building is still an active college building, is it not?

Louise: It is indeed. It is. It is considered by William and Mary a classroom building, but at the same time, we acknowledge its function as a heritage tourism destination and it’s importance in helping to tell the story of Williamsburg during the colonial era. So, on the first floor and there are a couple of rooms on the second floor, we have what Colonial Williamsburg would consider exhibition rooms.

We have a student volunteer group trained to provide historical interpretation seven days a week of those rooms. The difference between our exhibition rooms and exhibition rooms farther down Duke of Gloucester Street is, in the evening and on the weekends, our exhibition rooms are made available to the William and Mary family – students, alumni, William and Mary departments – for special events that are compatible with the sensitivities of the building, obviously.

So, many student organizations hold solemn ceremonies in the great hall and in the chapel, donors to the college are entertained in the great hall, alumni come back by the hundreds to be married in the chapel. So, it is still a living building, it is not a static structure.

Lloyd: The Wren building is named for Sir Christopher Wren. Did, in fact, Sir Christopher Wren have anything to do with the Wren building?

Louise: The short answer to that is, we don’t know. In 1724, Hugh Jones, who had been for a few years, a master at the college, wrote in “The Present State of Virginia,” that the building had been first modeled by Sir Christopher Wren. That touched off a debate that has not yet been resolved.

The Wren building, during the colonial period, was called simply “the college,” because this one building was designed and constructed to accommodate all of the activities of the colonial college. Not only were there classrooms there, there was a great hall that was used as a dining hall and as a general meeting space. In 1732, a chapel wing was added. There were dormitories for the young men who attended the college, and apartments for the masters, who were expected to remain bachelors and live in college with the boys. This was a very English model of a college, to have an enclosed, almost monastic group of scholars and their teachers living together and learning together.

In the early years, the building was called “the college.” Toward the end of the 19th century, when William and Mary was constructing more buildings on its campus, it became known as “the main building,” or “old main.” It wasn’t until it reopened after its restoration in 1931 that the college’s board of visitors officially named it the Sir Christopher Wren Building. So, we can say it’s the Sir Christopher Wren building, but we can’t say whether it’s a Sir Christopher Wren building, if you see the distinction.

I think at the time of the restoration, the scholarly weight leaned toward accepting Wren as the designer. I think it’s safe to say that, with a couple exceptions, scholarly weight today is leaning away from that attribution.

Lloyd: But the correct answer is, “We don’t know.” In a way, I kind of like that better than something definite. At least you get to argue about it if you want to.

Louise: And many people do. But the young men who were educated at William and Mary were the young men who were destined to become the leaders of the colony – whether they were members of the legislature, or the courts, or the church. These were the up-and-coming leaders of the colony.

The fact that William and Mary occupied the same city as the capitol of the colony became, as the years went by, increasingly important to the education of a William and Mary student. Dumas Malone, Thomas Jefferson’s biographer, writes that Jefferson’s education would not nearly have been as important as it was, had he not been educated in Williamsburg, where he had access to the men who were, at that time, the leaders of the colony.

Lloyd: Well, Jefferson spoke very highly of his education at William and Mary, wrote about it on more than one occasion that I remember.

Louise: Wasn’t crazy about the design of the Wren building, however. Something about a “rude, misshapen pile of bricks, but for its roof would be mistaken for a brick kiln.”

Lloyd: So he wasn’t very generous.

Louise: Well, and he became dissatisfied with the college after George Wythe left the chair of law. George Wythe came to the college in 1779, or early 1780. While he was there, Thomas Jefferson spoke very highly of the college, and he spoke very highly of his education at the college, and his primary teacher, who was William Small.But, as he moved into the 19th century, as we all know, he decided to strike out on his own and get it right. That’s when he founded the University of Virginia. We think we got it right, but Jefferson did not agree.

One thing Jefferson might have absorbed at William and Mary – and I think this is an important aspect of the building – is its relationship to the town plan of Williamsburg. Of course, when the college building was constructed, the capitol of the colony was still at Jamestown. It was just a few years later that the capitol was moved to this rural area occupied by the college, known as Middle Plantation.

But when the city of Williamsburg was laid out, the college building was made to anchor the western-most end of the Duke of Gloucester Street, this broad thoroughfare which is anchored at the other end by the colonial capitol. That gave the college a vista down the most historic mile in America, as it was later defined. When you see Jefferson’s campus and his rotunda, he has given it a vista as well, by designing the lawn in front of it.

Perhaps something of what he saw at Williamsburg made an impact. When William and Mary began expanding its campus in the 1920s and ‘30s, they extended that Duke of Gloucester Street access westward. There is a sunken garden, a landscape feature on the west side of the Wren building that sets up another vista to the West, and is the organizing element for the buildings of that campus.

Lloyd: Has anybody ever counted up how many people have graduated from William and Mary since it started? It must be a huge number.

Louise: Possibly not as large as you would think, because in the colonial period, actually in the words of the college’s charter, the college was established to accommodate one president, six masters, and 100 scholars, more or less. Throughout the colonial period, it was usually less. Many of the students counted in the colonial period were grammar-school boys, not collegiate students.

Then, when the capitol of Virginia moved to Richmond, when the Revolutionary War marked an end to all support from England for the College of William and Mary, William and Mary embarked on a very rocky history as a private college. Throughout the 19th century, there were rarely 100 students at William and Mary – many times, fewer than 50. Numerous times in the 19th century, William and Mary had to close, whether it was to repair its one classroom building, or to repair the building after a fire.

At one point in the 19th century, the college trustees and the people of Williamsburg and the students were all so mad at each other that the college just closed for a year to allow tempers to cool. So, the number of graduates in the 19th century would not be what you think. It wasn’t until William and Mary transferred itself to the state in 1906 that the student body started to increase.

Lloyd: I had no idea William and Mary’s history was quite that rocky.

Louise: It was very rocky as a private college.

Lloyd: You get the idea it’s doing so well now, that it’s always done so well. And that’s just not true.

Louise: Its history has not been written in a straight line. It almost has had three identities: one as a royal college, one as a private college, and one as a state university.

Lloyd: It’s nice to know that it finally found its way.

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