Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series - 1102
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library
In the autumn of 1771 Mrs. Christiana Campbell, widow, moved her tavernkeeping operations from Duke of Gloucester Street to this site at the east end of Williamsburg. She assured regular patrons, in a Virginia Gazette advertisement announcing the opening, that she would "reserve Rooms for the Gentlemen who formerly lodged" with her, while promising other prospective customers they could "depend upon genteel Accommodations, and the very best Entertainment" at her new establishment behind the Capitol. That location, where a Playhouse formerly stood, was ideal for attracting overnight guests because it overlooked the Exchange, "an open street, where all money business [was] transacted" in eighteenth-century Williamsburg. The view from the tavern porch, in effect, surveyed the stock market for the Colony of Virginia.
Many prominent colonists frequented Mrs. Campbell's tavern. Undoubtedly some went there to indulge in the popular sport of gambling, for as one eighteenth-century visitor observed: "there is not a publick house in virginia but have their tables all bat[t]ered with the [gaming] boxes, which shews the Extravagant Disposition of the planters." Whenever George Washington was in town during the 1760s and 1770s to attend the General Assembly, he often recorded in his diary having "Dined 2 and Spent the Evening at Mrs. Campbell's" tavern. Occasionally he mentioned eating dinner there in "the Club," presumably a private room reserved for habitués in the manner fashionable at London coffee houses. The Williamsburg Lodge of Masons also seems to have held social events regularly at Campbell's Tavern, since they were scheduled on December 3, 1776 "to dine and Sup and have a Ball for the Entertainment of the Ladies at the House of Mrs Campbell's as usual heretofore." The supper party that night was cancelled, however, on account of the critical times.
Mrs. Campbell swapped locales with a rival tavern hostess when she came to this Waller street neighborhood. Her predecessor on the site, Mrs. Jane Vobe, vacated the premises to move across Capitol Square and open the King's Arms Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street. For three years Mrs. Campbell rented the property, until she was able to purchase it with the backing of several affluent local investors. The tavern was already twenty years old then, having been built as a residence in 1754 by a printer named John Stretch, who held the office of Deputy Postmaster in Williamsburg. Stretch acquired the property from Benjamin Waller, noted lawyer and powerful court clerk, whose own eighteenth-century dwelling still stands nearby. In the early 1750s Waller developed this area as a residential "suburb," later incorporated into the city, by negotiating deeds of sale resembling the town's original Building Laws. He required purchasers to finish within a stipulated, three-year period "one good Dwelling House containing Twenty feet in Width and fifty 3 feet in length" or forfeit any claim to their lots. Stretch's ownership never reverted, and archaeological excavation in 1953 revealed that his building's foundations conformed to those specifications. Late eighteenth-century repair accounts belonging to Humphrey Harwood, a local brickmason, indicate that during Mrs. Campbell's ownership the structure contained at least eight rooms, three passages, two porches, and the proverbial tavern "Barr." Her barkeeper in 1774 was one John Pringle.
Mrs. Campbell's business evidently suffered from the general economic decline afflicting Williamsburg after removal of the state capital to Richmond in 1780. Trade drifted elsewhere, so by 1783 she had closed her tavern. A young Yorktown merchant, Alexander Macaulay, was baffled to discover in February, 1783 that the pugnosed "landlady, a little old Woman about four feet high; & equally thick" no longer entertained guests. Macaulay and his wife had stopped for dinner anticipating "a few Oysters." While noticing that "the House had a cold, poverty struck appearance," they nevertheless summoned the proprietress and proceeded into the parlor, "a large, cold room on the left hand" side of the entry, because they "did not approve of waiting for her in the passage." Informed of their mistake, the Macaulays hastily departed. They were told that only one "publick House" still existed in Williamsburg, where once dozens had flourished. Six months later, obviously wanting funds, Mrs. Campbell disputed a repair 4 bill of Harwood's, insisting she had "discharged it by [supplying him] a quantity of manure." Mrs. Campbell continued to live in the impoverished tavern, attended by a spinster daughter, Molly, and perhaps a dozen household servants, until her death in 1792. A year afterwards the property was offered for sale, but nearly a decade elapsed before another owner took possession. According to land tax records, confirmed by archaeological discovery of fire debris, the tavern burned around 1859.
The reconstruction of Christiana Campbell's Tavern began in December of 1954, and was completed with its official opening on April 16, 1956. In order to function as a modern dining facility, certain adaptations were introduced to provide maximum eating space and service efficiency. The fully equipped restaurant kitchen occupies a vast basement area, for example, which extends two levels underneath the building and its back yard. Interior floor plans were also slightly modified from typical colonial arrangements so that serving pantries, dumb waiters, dish pantries, and rest rooms could be devised. All mechanical equipment for modern convenience, including heating, plumbing, electricity, and air conditioning, was installed as unobtrusively as possible. Archaeological findings and documentary research substantiated many aspects of the original tavern, whereas precedent for unknown details the architects derived from a variety of eighteenth-century Williamsburg structures. As reconstructed, the tavern's overall design is a conjectural restoration blending practicality and authenticity.5
The commodious size of Campbell's Tavern ranks it among the large, public lodgings in eighteenth-century Williamsburg. One-and-one half stories high, it measures approximately 23' x 57' in total dimensions, and has a steeply sloping gambrel roof which affords spaciousness on the second floor. The exterior of the white-painted, frame tavern is essentially domestic in character. Long porches extending entirely across both front and rear elevations, however, hallmark it as a tavern, and give the building a low, rambling appearance. Even though the structure actually rests on unusually high foundation walls, this impression is undoubtedly accentuated by the porches' overhanging, shed roof lines, by the building's great length in relation to its shallowness, and by the open expansiveness of its heavily fenestrated, seven-bay facade. These porches are substantiated by archaeological and documentary evidence (including a 1765 letter of Governor Fauquier's describing the scene of a menacing crowd protesting the Stamp Act one afternoon, which he observed seated here on the porch). They recall the ubiquitous "piazzas" typifying late eighteenth-century taverns in Virginia. The front porch is embellished with wood railings and beaded, square posts; shallow segmental arches, capped with flat keyblocks, defining all seven bays; and a pedimented roof segment jutting above the graduated, molded stone entrance steps. These steps are Indiana limestone, approximating the Purbeck or Portland stone material that would have been used originally. In 1971 the back porch was enclosed with beaded, flush boarding 6 to provide additional dining space, so the resultant room retains a distinctly exterior architectural flavor. Large brick chimneys, with T-shaped, common bond stacks, terminate both ends of the building. Contrasting with the conventional English bond of the cellar walls, the lower portions of these massive chimneys are laid in the more elaborate Flemish bond pattern. Six pedimented dormers, echoing the entry motif, and ranged in a balancing placement over the first-story openings, project from the nearly vertical lower slopes of the gambrel roof. Round-butt, simulated wood shingles (made of cement asbestos) cover the roof, and the body of the building is faced with beaded weatherboards. The general design of the exterior reflects a composite of features distinguishing related, gambrel-roofed structures in Williamsburg.
The interior of the tavern is finished in modest eighteenth-century fashion. All the principal rooms on the first floor are trimmed, in varying combinations, with paneled wainscoting, peg strips for doffed apparel, simple wood cornices, beaded chairboards, and standard moldings enframing windows and doors. The dados in both the north and south, first floor, dining rooms are copied from eighteenth-century woodwork in the Tayloe House. The north dining room has a plain, bluestone fireplace surround resembling an original mantel treatment at the Nelson-Galt House. Likewise, the south dining room's dentil-trimmed, wood mantelpiece duplicates a colonial dining room mantel also in that dwelling. 7 Part of the small, southeast dining room incorporates space originally comprising a storage lean-to built against the exterior chimney, but omission of the dividing wall during reconstruction converted this into a larger seating area. Details on the stairway situated in the entrance passage were inspired by the exceptionally find Brush-Everard House stair, although a closed string construction was substituted here, and the arrangement entirely revised to suit the tavern's differing plan. The caged bar in the back passage recreates the "Barr" documented in Humphrey Harwood's accounts, and is equipped with the type of moveable wood grille often featured on surviving bars in early Virginia taverns. On the second floor decorative elements are noticeably more restrained than downstairs, befitting customary eighteenth-century practice. Most rooms are trimmed with a modicum of woodwork, and have merely practical details such as beaded baseboards, chairboards, and peg strips. Walls throughout the building are covered with plaster and simulated whitewash. Utilitarian paint colors matching dark, serviceable, shades commonplace during the colonial period, predominate to reflect the durability needed in a tavern environment. Rooms on the first and second floors have antique, edge grain, yellow pine floorboards salvaged from various sources. The taproom restored in the basement now functions as an auxiliary dining room. Its brick-paved flooring follows archaeological evidence, as does the mammoth brick fireplace, which symbolizes 8 the immense quantity of cooking requisite to a successful tavern. The taproom, fitted with high-backed, wooden booths, and augmented with an adjoining wicket bar, is patterned on prototypes of timeless English pub surroundings. Since Campbell's was probably a medium-priced, unpretentious tavern originally, elaborate architectural embellishments were eschewed in its reconstruction. Consequently, the interior has the appearance of any ordinary, eighteenth-century dwelling, with a few significant appointments bespeaking its role as a tavern.
Two signs outside, based on traditional English signboard precedent, also proclaim the tavern's identity for passersby. The painted one hanging from the front porch ceiling depicts an ale barrel to signify the potables available within for refreshment. Posted just beyond the front walk is another, three-sided sign, topped with a pyramidal, clapboard roof and a gilded finial, which simply displays the name of Campbell's. The latter sign is adapted from an old inn sign at Bickleigh, Devonshire, England.
Christiana Campbell's Tavern must have been a popular one in the eighteenth-century, judging from her policy of making reservations for gentlemen who regularly stayed there. Today the well-worn interior, where visitors have dined for more than twenty years, attests to the tavern's continuing popularity.
Catherine S. Schlesinger
July 8, 1977
Revised: August 4, 1977
Christiana Campbell's Tavern
Block 7, Building 45
Colonial Lot 21