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Friday, November 20, 2009

Richard Charlton Coffeehouse Reconstruction, Williamsburg, Virginia

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Colonial Williamsburg has a well-established international reputation for their high-quality restoration projects. Among the least frequently used "treatments" when it comes to historic preservation is Reconstruction. The Secretary of the Interior defines Reconstruction as follows: "Reconstruction is defined as the act or process of depicting, by means of new construction, the form, features, and detailing of a non-surviving site, landscape, building, structure, or object for the purpose of replicating its appearance at a specific period of time and in its historic location.".

Given that Colonial Williamsburg has the quality of a living history museum, conducting a reconstruction project in the heart of the village requires special efforts to describe what is happening to visitors. Staff and interpreters and even the construction crew did not lose out on a valuable teaching opportunity.

One interpretive panel describes how Richard Charlton, a wigmaker by trade, operated a coffee house here during the mid 1760s. This was a popular meeting place for merchants, burgesses, and other officials on public business. In October 1765, Governor Francis Fauquier faced down an angry crowd protesting the introduction of the Stamp Act into Virginia from the front porch. Charlton continued to operated the business at this location until 1771, though after 1767 it was referred to as Charlton's Tavern. Among many famous patrons included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

In 1995 the Cary Peyton Armistead House that had stood at this location for nearly 100 years was moved to a new location on Henry Street. Research that preceded and followed showed three of the four foundation walls for that building dated to ca. 1750 indicating they had supported not only the Victorian House but the coffeehouse as well. The Victorian building also had original rafters, one window, and a door that were used to help researchers understand how the coffeehouse may have looked.

Archaeological investigations between 1995 and 1998 identified the location of the front porch and a 10-foot-square dairy on the northeast of the main foundations. In the yard to the rear a midden (or trash pit) was discovered from which archaeologists recovered more than 70,000 artifacts. These have provided invaluable evidence of daily operations relating to the service of tea, coffee, chocolate, wine and spirits, and meals.

Another panel describing the construction process describes how the reconstruction was begun in September 2008 by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Framing erected in December 2008 and January 2009 was made by Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Trades carpenters at Great Hopes Plantation using period materials, techniques, and details. A construction schedule the described work as it was to occur through January. This work was supported by a generous $5 million gift from Forrest and Deborah Mars. The Mars family have been prominent supporters of the foundation for over 25 years.

Charlton's Coffeehouse gained added distinction thanks to the Richard Charlton's Coffeehouse Blog and webcam documenting the reconstruction process. The Associate Digital Content Specialist Joshua Muse in reflecting on the project wrote, "Though we had planned an online aspect for the project all along, we were still amazed by the level of interest shown in the webcam and blog updates."

The Richard Charlton Coffeehouse was formally opened on November 20th, 2009. Comments were offered on the project's history and goals by Forrest E. Mars, Chairman of the Foundation Board of Trustees Richard G. Tilghman, and Foundation President Colin Campbell. A performance of the Stamp Act Riot scene, demonstrations of Historic Trades, and an appearance by the Colonial Williamsburg Fife & Drums also took place.

An article from the Washington Post, "Brewing new sense of Colonial Relevance", published a day before the official dedication, places the Charlton Coffeehouse in context of an agenda to transform Colonial Williamsburg into a large-scale theater piece, "Revolutionary City," as part of a plan to "regain relevance, recapture audiences and reinvent the telling of history in a more distracted, disengaged and uneducated era."

The Post article goes on to refer to Robert Putnam's 1995 book Bowling Alone, which documents a decline in civic participation and social engagement. Choosing the coffeehouse as the first major reconstruction in the narrative-driven era of Williamsburg was seen as fitting. This was after all a place where our Colonial forebears committed their own acts of civic participation.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Lasers and Landmarks

We were fortunate to read a recent article in the NYT about efforts of experts from the Glasgow School of Art to use lasers to make 3D models of landmarks. The system works as follows, a laser mounted to a box scans surfaces of structures and objects, and created a 3D "cloud" of data. These billions of bits of digital information can then be reconstituted into 3D models.

One upcoming project being funded by the National Parks Service, is an effort to scan Mount Rushmore. As an aside, many experts have recognized how it is only a matter of time until this quintessential Amemrican landmark succumbs to the twin ravages of weather and time. By scanning it now, however, we will always have a record of how it once appeared.

What really stood out in this article, was not the article itself so much, but a quote accompanying slides of screen captures from several different models. One of these slides had this quote as follows: "The new cutting edge of laser technology offers a means to preserve and restore whole cities exactly as they once were. It promises a world kept as if in amber."

Never was it the intention of preservationists to preserve everything in situ or to restore everything back to a fixed time. This is likely not the intention of preservationists, archeologists, and others involved in the scanning. Where this work introduces some intriguing possibilities is in the area of how we go about interpreting and visually presenting what no longer exists. Rather than holding on to every building, or removing buildings not conforming to a period of other buildings in an area, the 3D models when superimposed over present physical fabric of a place could help create the illusion of places as they once were. One opportunity this raises is instead of creating costly reproductions or replicas of what has been lost, technology allows us to recreate places and spatial relationships as they existed at far less cost.

One of the leading firms doing work like this on the state-side is Cyark. This non-profit has a fairly ambitious agenda to document heritage sites in danger of being lost. A more detailed description of their methodology and in-depth treatment of their projects is available here: http://archive.cyark.org/about. This work presents some interesting possibilities though may have some pitfalls.

What if a standard arises where if we have suitable digital models, that people feel it is no longer to retain physical places that are obsolete, older buildings that are in the way of so-called "progress", etc.? Ethics which guide preservation and archeological practice today, will likely need to be applied to the burgeoning field of digital documentation. Still, the promise and potential does appear to outweigh the challenges. The real tipping point with work like this will occur like the revolution in the digital photography field - innovations in technology increased performances while pressing prices down. Once this happens, it is certain that the virtual representations of actual places will gain greater acceptance and appreciation in the culture-at-large.