The Virginia Arts Festival was held this past June on the lawn of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. It was called Funhouse Fest and Bruce Hornsby, as was described in many places, was the curator.
The weather was perfect. I went to take a look and was impressed by all of the various sized tents. What really caught my eye was the building behind the large white tent and the relationship between the two as a respite or shelter. Originally called the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds, this building site was the first hospital in the country dedicated to the mentally ill and opened in 1773. The name was changed in 1841 to Eastern Lunatic Asylum, and in 1885 it again was changed to Eastern State Hospital. The original building burned down in 1885 and was rebuilt. This structure was built in the early 1980’s on the original foundation and opened as a museum in 1985.
As I looked at all of the white tents, I wondered who else might have used tents within this space. I imagined that these same grounds could have been used as an encampment for some contingent of military during the American Revolution, or as a place to tend to the wounded during the Battle for Williamsburg in 1862. Maybe the Boy Scouts of America could have had a jamboree here. The possibilities seemed pretty good that somebody used this lawn for tents.
Did not happen as far as I can tell.
From an extensive check using many search engines, nothing came up. Next, I visited the Hospital to inquire about the hunch and was put in touch with a wonderfully helpful person, Linda Rowe. She wrote the book on the history of the hospital, along with Patricia Gibbs in 1974 and they updated it in 1990. She still works as an Historian for Colonial Williamsburg. From their research I learned that there is some question as to whether the Hospital was used as a barracks for troops during the Revolutionary War, and that for a short period of time during April, 1863, some of Williamsburg’s residents fled to the Hospital for shelter while Federal and Confederate troops contested the area. That’s it. All of the action occurred inside the building, not outside.
I was more than a little surprised that my hunch was wrong … no encampments, no tending the wounded, no jamborees. That’s OK, I enjoyed the journey.
As I said, my interest in the top picture is the relationship between the structures and how they are used in similar ways. While trying to verify that hunch, I learned about the history of the area, why the Hospital was built, and how care for the mentally ill started in this country. I was also reminded that the staff and researchers for Colonial Williamsburg want to provide information and are very accessible and responsive. Thanks CW staff and researchers, I appreciate the help.
Still, I keep thinking that there is something compelling about the intersection between a building once called the Mad House and a large white tent called the Funhouse separated by 243 years.