The Orrell House

Posted on August 15, 2017

The Orrell House

The Orrell House is an old colonial home that currently operates as an inn. It offers guests a true taste of 18th century life through its architecture and décor. But visitors have had frightening experiences at the Orrell House as well. Spend a night with spirits at this haunted site, which is among Colonial Williamsburg’s oldest structures!

Image Source: Saved by Colonial Williamsburg to “Time to Unwind” Pinterest board

Many of the colonial houses in Colonial Williamsburg now operate as inns. Those that are rumored to be haunted are ideal for traveling ghost hunters. The Orrell House, located on East Francis Street, is such an option. According to Steve Erickson, the general manager of the Colonial Houses-Historic Lodging, a family who stayed there had their fare share of frights. Everyone was watching television in the living room, when they suddenly heard the sound of running water coming from upstairs. The father went up to investigate. “Someone” had left the bathroom faucet on. But even after he shut it off and returned to his loved ones downstairs, the faucet turned on again!

Later that night, the family was again startled, this time by the sound of glass breaking. The father made another trip to the bathroom. The drinking glass kept in the medicine cabinet now lay shattered across the floor, “as if it had been thrown.”1 Then, the next morning, they found the room strewn with toilet paper. It sounds like the upstairs bathroom at the Orrell House is home to a mischievous poltergeist!

There have been no reported deaths at the Orrell House, so the source of its supernatural activity still remains a mystery. In fact, very little is known about the house prior to the 1800s, though some researchers say that it was built in the 1750s. It is named after John Orrell (sometimes spelled “Orrill”), who purchased the building around 1800 and lived in it for about twenty years.

The Orrell House is a simple two-story structure, “designed as an almost perfect cube – 28 feet on a side and 28 feet high.”2 It lies in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area and is among the city’s original eighty-eight buildings. Quite a few haunted places we previously posted about are also on the list, such as the Bruton Parish Church, the George Wythe House, the Colonial Williamsburg Magazine, the Public Gaol, the Lightfoot House, the Peyton Randolph House, the Nicolson House and the Ludwell-Paradise House.

The preservation of these important buildings was launched by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Reverend William Archer Rutherfoord Goodwin. Rockefeller Junior was an American philanthropist from Cleveland, Ohio. One of his most remarkable accomplishments was developing the massive office complex, Rockefeller Center, during the Great Depression.

Besides being a shrewd businessman, Rockefeller Junior was also an avid philanthropist. According to historians, he gave away some “$537 million during his lifetime.”3 He contributed both overseas and all over the United States. He gave France a huge sum of money to restore several major buildings, including the Chateau de Versailles and the Reims Cathedral, for instance. He provided East Jerusalem with the funds to build the Palestine Archaeological Museum. He also helped finance the reconstruction of the beautiful Stoa of Attalos, in Athens.

Back in the states, Rockefeller Junior gave just as generously. In 1913, he launched the Bureau of Social Hygiene, an organization which aimed to combat the many social ills (such as prostitution, juvenile delinquency and drug use) plaguing New York City at the time. From 1915 to 1933, he helped fund and design over fifty miles of carriage roads in Maine’s Acadia National Park.  Then, in 1926, he teamed up with Reverend Goodwin to restore Colonial Williamsburg, “one building at a time.”4  

Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin was born in Richmond, Virginia. He is often referred to as “the Father of Colonial Williamsburg.” He graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1893 and quickly established himself as a great religious leader. He was a priest at St. John’s Church in Petersburg for a decade, then became the pastor at the Bruton Parish Church in 1903. The Bruton Parish Church, formed from the Middletown and Marston Parishes in 1674, was one of the buildings Reverend Goodwin and Rockefeller Junior worked together on restoring. Below is an image of the two men standing together.

Image Source: Xroads.Virginia.Edu

The Bruton Parish Church is named after a town in the English county of Somerset. It stands on land donated by John Page, a wealthy merchant who served on the Virginia House of Burgesses and also helped found the College of William & Mary.

The church was pivotal in the development of Colonial Williamsburg. It served as a center of community life and was also used as a hospital during the Battle of Yorktown and the Battle of Williamsburg. It had to be repaired many times, due to its extensive use. 

Revitalizing his beloved church “whetted”5 Reverend Goodwin’s appetite for restoration. He noticed that many other buildings in Colonial Williamsburg were falling apart. Armed with teams of historians, archaeologists, landscape designers and architects (as well as some forty-million dollars from Rockefeller Junior), Goodwin transformed the entire town into a living museum.

The Orrell House held up better than most of Williamsburg’s old buildings and required less restoration.”6 If you visited the Orrell House today, many of its original features – such as its gambrel roof and chimney – are well intact. It is a simple and small building, but is still a popular option among tourists due to its close proximity to the heart of Williamsburg. Popular taverns – including Christiana Campbell’s, Josiah Chowning’s, Shields’ and the King’s Arms – lie not too far away. We’d written about the King’s Arms Tavern previously. It is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of “Irma,” a woman who lived in and managed the restaurant. Some say she died from a heart attack in one of the tavern’s upstairs bedrooms.

The Orrell House is surrounded by a white picket fence and also has a white clapboard. On one side, there is a short passage that links the front and back rooms. Its single chimney, located on the other side of the building, provides heat to the whole structure. A sketch of the building by Gulay Berryman shows it surrounded by greenery.

Image Source: A fine art print by Gulay Berryman on WMBG Art Gallery

The yellow building to the side of the house is known as the Orrell Kitchen. It is located right next to the Williamsburg Inn. In the 18th century, kitchens were typically built separately from the main house, especially in the northern colonies. “The threat of fire from cooking embers could devastate an entire building in minutes. It was less of a problem for the family to lose a small building than their entire dwelling.”7

The house’s rooms are now equipped with modern amenities – including telephones, air conditioning and televisions – but furniture, such as antique beds and cabinets, keep the past alive. The suite on the first floor includes a sitting room with fireplace, as well as a small daybed and hurly-bed. On the second floor, there are two separate accommodations, both comfortable and quaintly furnished.

The plan of the Orrell House is similar to that of the Lightfoot House, which is also located on Francis Street and currently operates as an inn. Check out our post on it! Both guests and staff have encountered colonially dressed ghosts in the building. Freshly made beds are also frequently found unturned. No one has been able to put a name to the spirits which haunt the Lightfoot House, though.  

Works Cited

1. Turnage, Sheila. Haunted Inns of the Northeast. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 2001. Page 206.

2. Raymond, Steve. “Past Perfect – An Old House Reveals Rich Past of Williamsburg.” The Seattle Times. 21 January 1990. Web. 25 May 2016. Para. 14.

3. Wooster, Martin Morse. “John D. Rockefeller Jr.” Philanthropy Roundtable, 2015. Web. 25 May 2016. Para. 17.

4. Wooster, Martin Morse. “John D. Rockefeller Jr.” Philanthropy Roundtable, 2015. Web. 25 May 2016. Para. 9.

5. Stubbs, John H. and Emily G Makas. Architectural Conservation in Europe and the Americas. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2011. 25 May 2016. Page 432.

6. Raymond, Steve. “Past Perfect – An Old House Reveals Rich Past of Williamsburg.” The Seattle Times. 21 January 1990. Web. 25 May 2016. Para. 16.

7. “Colonial Houses – Historic Lodging.” The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, n.d. 25 May 2016. Page 4.