Bassett Hall

Williamsburg, VA

October 30, 1999

When visiting Williamsburg be sure to include Bassett Hall on your tour. It is included in most of the entry passes. Although from the outside Bassett Hall appears to be just a simple two-story 18th-century white frame farmhouse, its importance is that it was once the Williamsburg home of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., one of America's richest men.
The house is believed to have been built between 1753 and 1766 by Philip Johnson, a member of the House of Burgesses from King and Queen County. Burwell Bassett, a state legislator, congressman, and Martha Washington's nephew, bought the place in 1800.
During the Civil War, Union cavalryman George Armstrong Custer spent 10 days after the Battle of Williamsburg as a guest in the Rebel household. He had taken leave to attend the wedding of his West Point classmate John W. Lea. Lea, a Carolina Confederate, was wounded during the battle. While he recuperated at Bassett Hall, Lea became engaged to one of the daughters in the family.
In order to understand the history behind Rockefeller and Williamsburg we first have to look at Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin who was the rector of Bruton Church. If not for this man and his vision Williamsburg might have gone the way of other historic buildings; torn down to make room for "progress". By the 1920's Williamsburg had become a small mud-choked southern village. The historic buildings that still remained had been changed to boarding houses and gas stations, with cheap board fronts put up on them. Dr. Goodwin, who had become the pastor of the Bruton Church, driven by his vision, was able to get two buildings restored in Williamsburg, but he lacked the funds to restore Williamsburg on the scale that he wanted to. He went to several millionaires but failed to get their attention. He realized that he had to find a different aspect that would interest a man with money to fund the restoration. In 1926, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., came to William and Mary College for the dedication of a building honoring the Phi Beta Cappa Society, to which both he and Dr. Goodwin belonged. The Reverend Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin took this opportunity to interest John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in Williamsburg's restoration. He presented to him the idea of restoring an "entire village" not just one building. Bassett Hall was among the first places he showed the visiting philanthropist and oil-fortune heir. Of particular interest was the Great Oak, a huge old tree that was already in its 80s when the Stamp Act Crisis rocked the colonies. Rockefeller said, "It is a place to sit in silence and let the past speak to us." Unfortunately the great oak finally succumbed to a severe ice storm in the winter of 1998.
Goodwin encouraged Rockefeller to buy the house, and it became the Rockefellers' residence during their twice-annual trips to the city. It also became the Rockefellers' retreat from the world. Mrs. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller decorated it with folk art.
A Rockefeller biographer wrote, "Perhaps his favorite residence--the one that most attracted him in his later years--was the small white house known as Bassett Hall in Williamsburg. Here, surrounded by the details of a vast project, he found the satisfaction of creation, of being a part of one of his own great dreams."
The house remained in the Rockefeller family until 1979, when it was bequeathed to Colonial Williamsburg. It is shown to the public (reservations are required) as it looked in the 1930s, with many of the Rockefellers' furnishings and 125 of Mrs. Rockefeller's folk art pictures, chalkware figurines, pottery, needlework, and weather vanes. In going through the house today you can see the love that the Rockefellers felt for this home.

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