by Henry Lane Hull
The summer before my 10th birthday my parents took me to Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg. We stayed at the Chamberlin Hotel in Old Point Comfort and one evening after touring Yorktown, we called for dinner at Nick’s Seafood Pavilion.
The restaurant was on the waterfront, across from the beach on the waterfront at Yorktown.
The building was modern but the décor was strictly “Greek Revival.” I put that term in quotations because the proprietors were Nick and Mary Mathews, who had emigrated from their native Greece over 30 years earlier and settled in Yorktown where they entered the restaurant business.
Nick and Mary were simultaneously 110% Greek and 120% American. They were truly proud of their heritage and equally in love with the new land of opportunity that had become their “homeland.” Entering the lobby of the restaurant, one encountered massive copies of ancient Greek statues, houseplants that had become trees after decades of Mary’s careful nurturing and mosaics depicting Greek nautical themes. Today some of that artwork decorates the River Walk Restaurant across the road from the site of Nick’s, which is now a parking garage.
Nick and Mary were super patriots and they expressed their love of country most generously throughout their lives. Nick had come to America from the Greek island of Karpathos in 1920 and ultimately settled in Yorktown because he said he wanted to be where America began. By tireless working in their business over the years, he and Mary, a native of Sparta, amassed many parcels of property in the Yorktown vicinity. One 25-acre tract they donated to the U.S. in the early 1970s for construction of the Yorktown Victory Center to celebrate the forthcoming Bicentennial of the American Revolution from 1976 to 1981.
The Center did not become as popular as Nick and Mary had hoped and after less than four decades it has been razed, being replaced on the site by the new Museum of the American Revolution. This past Monday my Good Wife and I went down to Yorktown to see the new facility. Visiting it is a great experience, with two fine films and many interactive displays setting the stage for the viewer to understand the conclusion of the War for Independence.
On the actual site of the former Victory Center a Revolutionary War encampment and farm setting are being constructed. The setting consists of a farmer’s homestead replete with home, outside kitchen, smokehouse, corncrib and tobacco barn. Nearby on the encampment a canvas tent recreates the home-away-from-home of the Revolutionary soldier. Workers are rushing against the deadline of the grand opening scheduled for late March.
The site is not what Nick and Mary knew, but I think they should be quite proud of the end result that their generosity made possible. In proximity to the reconstructed homestead is the small marble tomb where Nick and Mary are buried. He died in 1983 en route with Mary to the christening of the naval cruiser, USN Yorktown, in Mississippi, where she was to break the bottle of champagne over the ship’s bow. She continued on to do her assigned duty, before returning with Nick’s body for his funeral in Yorktown.
Without Nick, Mary continued to operate the restaurant until her health failed and ultimately the property was sold as part of the Yorktown redevelopment. Shortly before my 30th birthday I had taken my parents there for dinner and as I was paying the bill, I remarked, “Mrs. Nick (no one ever called her Mary), this year marks 20 years that our family has been coming here for dinner with you.” She looked up, and said, “I remember you. Give me that ticket. After 20 years you deserve a dinner on Nick.” I was flabbergasted; the patrons in line behind me gasped and she then stuffed my hands with candy and cigars.
Mary and Nick were a classic example of an immigrant couple, who came not to take from America, but to give of their time, talent and treasure to contribute to our country’s prosperity and happiness. In both of those efforts they succeeded brilliantly. The new Museum of the American Revolution is their great legacy for generations of Americans to come.