Robert Lowell Warner Aerial Photographs

Dublin Core


Robert Lowell Warner Aerial Photographs


Warner, Robert Lowell
Aerial photography - Virginia - Williamsburg
Photography, Military - United States
African American neighborhoods - Virginia - Williamsburg
World War, 1939-1945 - War work - Virginia - Wiliamsburg
Williamsburg - History - 20th century
Williamsburg (Va.) - Buildings, structures, etc.


Aerial Perspectives on Wartime Williamsburg

Today’s Rockefeller Library volunteer photographer, Wayne Reynolds, is capturing aerial footage of Williamsburg via a camera attached to a drone. His simulations of flying over Williamsburg add a new perspective to a large archive of aerial photography dating back to the 1920s. Military aircraft from Langley Field captured some of the earliest bird’s-eye views as they documented the terrain for defensive purposes and strategic planning. Some of their aerial images became part of the visual archive the Williamsburg office of architects Perry, Shaw and Hepburn began assembling to aid their study of the town prior to making any changes. Today these photos enhance understanding of the restoration process by showing the many structures that had to be moved or demolished to bring the Historic Area back to its eighteenth-century appearance. In some instances, they may offer the best visual documentation of how different buildings stood in relation to each other in late 1920s Williamsburg.
A long-ago training exercise by a service member has preserved some unique aerial photos of Williamsburg’s Historic Area as it appeared during its next phase of development during World War II. Received as a donation from the Warner family, the series of images taken by Robert Lowell Warner, a United States Navy photographer, document Colonial Williamsburg’s wartime mission of providing educational field trips as part of basic training for soldiers from Fort Eustis and Camp Peary, as well as providing a place for recreation and relaxation to rejuvenate servicemen and their families from other surrounding bases, such a Naval Station Norfolk. The U.S. Navy Photographic Squadron conducted aerial surveys over the Hampton Roads region to allow its crew to hone its skills working with the special cameras and taking photographs wearing a safety harness out an open door of the aircraft. Aerial photographers played a critical role in wartime military operations. They carefully documented terrain from above to aid in planning for defensive and offensive actions. In coordination with photo lithographic units that could rapidly develop and print images, the photographers aided military strategists in quickly planning for aerial maneuvers.
Robert Lowell Warner, a professional photographer from Charleston, West Virginia, enlisted in the United States Naval Reserves on March 10, 1944 and served until January 3, 1946, when he was honorably discharged with the rank of Photographer’s Mate, Second Class. As an employee of the Photographic Squadron Two at Naval Air Station Norfolk, Warner learned to operate special large format cameras used to create aerial photographs for mapping purposes. The photos taken during training exercises in turn provided images that other soldiers could use to practice interpreting images to calculate the sizes of structures and other features at ground level, an important tool for planning military strategy in combat zones. A series of aerial photos could also be used to generate very precise maps useful in both wartime and peacetime.
Warner and his wife took advantage of the recreational opportunities for servicemen and their families at Colonial Williamsburg when taking leave from the Naval Air Station Norfolk. The family holds a 1941 Colonial Williamsburg guidebook and admission tickets for the Raleigh Tavern and the Ludwell-Paradise House dating to 1945. A record of their visits is also preserved in a series of photographs Warner took while touring the Historic Area, including a still life of cooking implements in a fireplace, the Governor’s Palace maze, and various street scenes and exterior building views. They clearly benefitted from the opportunity to rest and recharge offered by the military furlough at Williamsburg and later brought their children back for an educational museum visit. After his discharge, Warner moved back to Charleston, West Virginia and continued his career as a photographer, eventually becoming the chief photographer of the Union Carbide South Charleston Technical Center’s photo lab.
Shot in early color transparency format, the donated set of eight aerial photos offer sharp, detail-oriented perspectives on various regions of the Historic Area in 1945, some of which are quite different in appearance today. In the first example, an aerial view looking towards the east ends of Duke of Gloucester and Francis Streets, Waller Street is shown in an undeveloped state with the Kelly House standing on the site of Christiana Campbell’s Tavern. It was later demolished in the 1950s to allow for reconstruction of the tavern which opened in May 1956. Capitol Landing Road, visible in the upper left, includes a few houses still standing today, such as the one housing the Governor’s Trace Bed & Breakfast.
A second aerial focusing upon the Palace Green area includes a military bus parked in front of the Governor’s Palace where servicemen disembarked for an educational visit. In 1944 and 1945, many convalescent soldiers from area military hospitals toured Colonial Williamsburg as the Soldier Sailor Training Program scaled back and the Historic Area became a significant component of rehabilitation efforts. It also offers a view of the area at the rear of the Governor’s Palace gardens near the C&O railroad tracks where townspeople planted and maintained Victory Gardens.
Another example, a view of the Capitol site looking towards Block 17, housing the Raleigh Tavern, and Blocks 27 and 28 along east Nicholson Street, is significant for its visual documentation of an entire neighborhood now disappeared that once served Williamsburg’s hospitality employees and African American community during the era of segregation. Today the area encompasses Colonial Williamsburg’s Franklin Street administrative buildings, bus operations, archaeological collections building, millwork shop, laundry, commissary, and warehouse. Two churches, Mount Ararat Baptist Church, on Franklin Street, and Union Baptist Church, on Botetourt Street, served the spiritual needs of residents. Along Raleigh Lane, extending off of Nicholson Street near the Public Gaol, stood the Odd Fellows Hall, also known as the Morninglight Lodge, the Hillside Café/Wallace and Cook’s Beer Garden restaurant, and the Thomas Confectionary, all of which provided venues for social and philanthropic activities during the era of segregation. The Toby Scott restaurant and store across Botetourt Street from Mount Ararat Baptist Church gave neighbors another place to shop and congregate.
As part of its effort to attract and retain well-trained hotel and restaurant workers from larger cities to work at hospitality properties, Colonial Williamsburg constructed a row of six white clapboard houses along East Scotland Street in the 1930s. They offered comfortable and up-to-date homes with a living room, full kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, and screened porches. Known as “White City” due to the painted white clapboard siding used on all six dwellings, they became the residences of chefs, bellmen, dining room captains, chauffeurs, and housekeepers for the Williamsburg Inn and Lodge. A large white clapboard dormitory building visible on the site of today’s Franklin Street Office Building provided additional lodging for single employees during a period when wartime housing pressures pushed Williamsburg to convert all useable spaces into extra accommodations. Today’s only remainder of this once vibrant neighborhood is Mount Ararat Baptist Church which still stands on Franklin Street next to the Franklin Street Office Building.
While the original intent of Robert Lowell Warner’s aerial photography is long past, the Rockefeller Library is pleased to add digital copies and corresponding inkjet prints to its photo archives, where they will serve a new purpose as an important record of Williamsburg from a bird’s-eye perspective during the 1940s. The aerial views are a significant legacy of the wartime years donated by the Warner family in honor of their father and of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. They tell the story of one of the many thousands of soldiers who passed through wartime Williamsburg and upon whom the Historic Area left a lasting impression through the viewfinder of his camera.


Warner, Robert Lowell



Is Part Of

Robert Lowell Warner Aerial Photographs, AV2022.2, 1-7. See also AV2020.3, 1-8 for associated digital images.




Seven transparencies



Rights Holder

Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Collection Items


Warner, Robert Lowell 1945

Warner, Robert Lowell 1945

Warner, Robert Lowell 1945

Warner, Robert Lowell 1945

Warner, Robert Lowell 1945
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