Duke of Gloucester Street: Williamsburg, Virginia


Few places in the U.S. have used the present to recreate the past as authentically and successfully as Williamsburg has done along Duke of Gloucester Street. The street is once again the 99-foot-wide "great street" of Virginia's 18th century capital. Aside from more trees and less mud, the resemblance is remarkable. Buildings have been restored to their 18th century appearance and homes, stores, and other public buildings have been reconstructed at their original locations. The street is closed to motor vehicle traffic along its mile length.

Designated Area

The entire eight blocks of Duke of Gloucester are designated between Blair Street to the east and Boundary Street to the west.

Replica 18th century buildings and people dressed in colonial-style clothing make Duke of Gloucester Street an outdoor, living museum. Photo courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Planning Excellence

The only evidence of modern life is at the western end, near the College of William and Mary's historic campus, where 41 shops and restaurants are clustered at Merchants Square, a colonial revival historic district dating from the 1920s and 1930s.

To residents, history buffs, and tourists, Duke of Gloucester is a living, outdoor museum. It is a street where you can witness the reenactment of colonial-style, 18th century life.

Photo opportunities along the street abound. This Thomas Jefferson statue is in Merchants Square, a modern-day marketplace at the west end of Duke of Gloucester. Photo courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Defining Characteristics, Features

Colonial Williamsburg's 'Great Street'

  • Virginia's colonial Capitol, at the eastern end of Duke of Gloucester, is where the colony's legislators unanimously voted in 1776 to direct their delegates in Philadelphia to introduce a resolution declaring the 13 colonies' independence  
  • The Street has been visited by both early and late historical figures, including former presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton
  • John D. Rockefeller, Jr., initiated reconstruction, provided funding, and acquired the first properties in 1926. Rockefeller's leadership and generosity led to restoration or reconstruction of more than 80 buildings

Careful Planning Shapes Outcome

  • Francis Nicholson, Governor of Virginia from 1698 to 1705, was instrumental in moving capital from Jamestown to Williamsburg; he developed formal town plan with Baroque features, including Duke of Gloucester as the axial main street
  • The 1699 Acts of Assembly established the first formal town plan and building regulations
  • The first of six Williamsburg comprehensive plans adopted in 1953, emphasized preservation with street improvements and a "no parking zone" designated for all of Duke of Gloucester Street. The 1953 plan proposed a parking lot to serve Merchants Square; the Prince George Parking Garage was built at the recommended location in 2004
  • Duke of Gloucester Street closed to vehicular traffic in 1969 in Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area and in 1974 at Merchants Square
  • Williamsburg's third comprehensive plan (1981) contained an Urban Design plan that provided a framework for maintaining the character of the Historic Area
  • Comprehensive plans adopted in 1989 and 1998 emphasized preservation of historic and architectural resources through a special Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area District, rather than an overlay district, to prevent extraneous zoning restrictions of an underlying zone from interfering with historically accurate development
  • The most recent comprehensive plan (2006) concentrates on preserving the character of the Center City: changes to the zoning ordinance were proposed to the north and south of Merchants Square to encourage residential development so Duke of Gloucester would continue to be at the center of a vibrant mixed-use community

Historic Reconstruction

  • Archaeological evidence and historical records going back as far as 300 years are used to reconstruct buildings as accurately as possible
  • The only uses allowed on Duke of Gloucester Street are restored and reconstructed buildings and accessory structures dating before 1800 and based on documented evidence; buildings and alterations are subject to approval by the Board of Zoning Appeals and Architectural Review Board
  • Virginia's original Capitol building was reconstructed and refurnished as the building  existed between 1705 and 1747; 18th century records were used for restoration
  • Merchants Square commercial area was created at western end; provided a new area for businesses to relocate from the historic area

Onlookers watch as Queen Elizabeth's procession of carriages makes its way down Duke of Gloucester Street during her visit to Williamsburg in 2007. Photo courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Walkability and Mixed Uses

  • The street closed to motorized traffic beginning in 1969
  • Parking for Merchants Square commercial area is located primarily in interior blocks; shops and restaurants occupy the ground level with offices above
  • Duke of Gloucester Street is the center of Williamsburg's colonial-era community; originally the street had a variety of uses — residences, offices, shops, religious and government buildings. Today it is dedicated to residential use and historical exhibitions, shops and an active church