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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.

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