Posted on August 15, 2017
Majestic Williamsburg home, once owned by the Rockefellers, offers haunts and history.
Many of Colonial Williamsburg’s streets were named after famous people. The Duke of Gloucester Street, for example, was named after Prince William, the nephew of King William III and Mary II. William and Mary were joint monarchs who ruled England, Scotland and Ireland after the Glorious Revolution. During their reign, the pair signed the English Bill of Rights and also a charter for the creation of a college in the colony of Virginia. Now known as the College of William and Mary, the institution is among Williamsburg’s most historic (and haunted) places.
Prince William’s mother, Princess Anne of Denmark, was Mary’s younger sister. The siblings were initially quite close, but became estranged after Mary’s accession to the throne. Since the king and queen were childless, they were extremely close to their nephew – showering him with gifts and knighting him on January 1696.
By the principles of Protestant succession, laid down in 1689, William would be the next one to inherit the throne. Though he was the only child of Anne’s to survive infancy, William was afflicted by illness from birth. He struggled to speak, for example, had poor motor skills and an unusually enlarged head. At three weeks old, he suffered from severe convulsions. By the age of five, Prince William could not yet climb stairs by himself.
Prince William died at the tender age of eleven, on July 30, 1700, in one of the old apartments in Kensington Palace. The court physicians could not agree on what killed him – some said scarlet fever, while others claimed it was smallpox. Colonial Williamsburg’s main street was named in the young prince’s honor. The Duke of Gloucester Street runs straight from the College of William and Mary to the Capitol building, and is the city’s principle axis. It began as a narrow Native American trace route and horse path, before becoming what Franklin Delano Roosevelt would refer to as the “most historic avenue in all America.”1
Running parallel to The Duke of Gloucester street is Francis Street. It is named after Francis Nicholson, a Yorkshire-born military officer who became the lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1698. Nicholson began his military career as a member of the Holland Regiment, and especially impressed commanders during a reconnaissance mission to French Acadia during the late 1680s.
During his tenure as the lieutenant governor Virginia, Nicholson was an avid supporter of public education and economic development. He helped found the College of William and Mary, for instance, and became a member of its board of trustees. He also helped plan the city of Williamsburg, when it became Virginia’s new capital in 1699. Both Nicholson Street and Francis Street were named after Francis Nicholson, probably because of his invaluable input in laying out the expanding colonial town.
Interestingly, Nicholson was known for having a terrible temper. He alienated the Tidewater region’s gentry class, for example, and was not afraid to call councilors abusive names. He frequently butted heads with his former ally, James Blair – competing for authority and quarrelling over numerous civic issues, for instance – as well.
Nicholson’s unprofessional behavior continued in the realm of romance. He continued to publicly pursue Lucy Burwell, even though she was already engaged and had previously turned him down.
Francis Street & Bassett Hall
Francis Street is the home to numerous original colonial homes and historic lodging, including the acclaimed Williamsburg Inn. The inn’s rooms are individually furnished with reproductions and antiques, and lies just walking distances away from many of the city’s main attractions. In fact, Queen Elizabeth II has stayed there multiple times.
Francis Street also has plenty of unique museums, including the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. The former, first opened in 1985, houses an impressive collection of British and American antiques, ranging from furniture to ceramics, glassware to firearms, textiles to paintings. The latter has a wide range of interesting objects, instruments and sculptures – all made by local craftsmen – on display.
We’ve previously posted about a few of Francis Street’s most haunted buildings – including the Lightfoot House and the Orrell House. Both are among Virginia’s still-standing original eighty-eight buildings and are currently operating as inns. The Lightfoot House, though beautiful, has been a hotbed of supernatural activity since the early 20th century. There, cleaning women have found beds unturned and encountered apparitions of colonially-dressed men. The Orrell House, a simple building, has two floors and is surrounded by a white picket fence. When a family stayed there, they experienced the nightly activities of what sounds suspiciously like a poltergeist.
So here is another haunted structure located on Francis Street to add to your list: Bassett Hall. This eighteenth century farmhouse was once the home of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. It can be found on 522 East Francis Street and is currently open to the public.
Bassett Hall was built between 1753 and 1766 by Philip Johnson, a member of the House of Burgesses. It was named after Martha Washington’s nephew, Burwell Bassett of New Kent County. Burwell Bassett was born on March 18, 1764 in Williamsburg and was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1787 to 1789. He served on the Virginia State Senate from 1794 to 1805. He purchased Bassett Hall sometime around 1800.
The land on which Bassett Hall stands was patented by the Bray family in the mid-seventeenth century. James I and Angelica Bray began living on the plot with their four children in 1671. James was a prominent politician, who rebelled against Governor William Berkeley in 1676 with Nathaniel Bacon. Though the rebels were ultimately overcome by Berkeley’s forces, James and Angelica managed to escape prosecution.
After James died in 1691, Bassett Hall exchanged through many hands. Some portions were annexed as part of Williamsburg, while others remained as part of James City County.
In the 1750s, John Robinson became the trustee of the Bray family estate. He rented the property out until 1771. After that year, records indicate that Bassett Hall operated as a boarding house or tavern, managed by a man named Richard Hunt Singleton.
Sometime before 1794, Richard Corbin of King and Queen County purchased Bassett Hall. He renovated the house extensively – hiring local masons and blacksmiths to restore its moldings and groundwork, for instance, and purchasing new draperies for its numerous rooms.
Now freshly refurbished, Bassett Hall was sold to Burwell Bassett, who already owned several other lots in Williamsburg. At Bassett Hall, Burwell hosted many parties and invited famous artists and powerful politicians as guests. The acclaimed Irish poet Thomas Moore is believed to have stopped by in 1804, for example, during his travels from Norfolk to Richmond. Some say his stay at Bassett Hall was what inspired his poem, “To The Firefly.”
During the Civil War, Bassett Hall was owned by Colonel Goodrich Durfey. The Battle of Williamsburg, which occurred in May 1862, actually erupted right near the estate. The Durfey family opened up their home to wounded Confederates, even though the Union army had seized control of the city.
In 1927, Reverend Dr. William Archer Rutherfoord Goodwin purchased Bassett Hall. Goodwin was a famous Episcopal priest and historian, whose knack for rescuing old colonial structures earned him the nickname “the Father of Colonial Williamsburg.” Shortly after he bought Bassett Hall, though, the property was unfortunately struck by lightning, resulting in a terrible fire that nearly destroyed the entire structure. It was restored by 1933, the year it was deeded to John D. Rockefeller.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was a well-known American financier – the son oil business tycoon John D. Rockefeller and Laura Celestia Spelman. He studied at both Yale University and Brown University. When John D. Rockefeller, Jr. visited Williamsburg in 1925, Goodwin gave him a tour of the city. Together, the two developed a plan to restore the historic town.
Throughout his life, Junior’s principle place of residence was a grand, nine-story mansion in New York. But Goodwin convinced Junior and Abby to purchase Bassett Hall, as a second home for their twice-annual trips to Virginia. The Rockefellers moved into Bassett Hall in November 1936 and the estate remained in their family until 1979.
Bassett Hall has two floors. On the first, there is a kitchen, a butler’s pantry, a dining room, a parlor, a morning room… even a room for cutting flowers. On the second, there are multiple bedrooms, many equipped with their own personal baths. Outside, Bassett Hall is surrounded by well landscaped gardens, which were recently equipped with a modern sprinkler system. The grand estate was has been open to the public since 2002.
Tucked away in a private pocket shrouded by trees and foliage, Bassett Hall offers a quiet, history-rich escape. It still houses many pieces from Mrs. Rockefeller’s folk-themed art collection. But like many old structures in Williamsburg, Bassett Hall is rumored to be haunted. Many people who have toured Bassett Hall have heard disembodied voices and felt unexplainable cold spots while touring its extensive halls and rooms. Given how Bassett Hall has passed through so many hands, it is very likely that the spirits of some of these owners are still keeping watch over their beloved home! If you happen to come across one during your visit, feel free to send us your story.
1. “About Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.” Magnolia Manor, n.d. Web. 22 August 2016. Para. 2.