Richard Charlton’s Coffeehouse

History of the site and structure

Despite its prominent location near the Capitol, the coffeehouse site was less desirable than many other locations in town because of its steeply sloping topography. Francis Sharpe first purchased two lots in 1713, one of which included the area of the Coffeehouse. His will of 1739 left a 35-foot square portion to his son, William. After the lot passed through William Sharpe's hands, Robert Crichton bought it, and by 1750 built a storehouse that stood one-and-a-half stories tall. The site’s slope necessitated retaining walls and fill, and may well have induced Crichton to shift the building until it encroached significantly on neighboring city land. Crichton in turn sold the lot to Nathaniel Walthoe in 1762.

Sometime after 1762 the small storehouse was converted into a coffeehouse, and within a few years was rented to a Williamsburg wigmaker named Richard Charlton. The location just outside the Capitol gates made the Coffeehouse a popular meeting place for merchants, gentlemen, and government officials. In 1767, Charlton advertised in the Virginia Gazette that the Coffeehouse was “now opened by the subscriber as a TAVERN.” Whether this change occurred because of financial problems is unclear; however, by 1770 his establishment appears to have closed.

The best known event at Charlton’s occurred in 1765. George Mercer, the chief distributor of the stamps for Virginia, was caught in a riot about the Stamp Act near the Capitol. Clearly, Mercer proved an excellent scapegoat for the angry crowd, who demanded that he swear an oath not to distribute the official stamped paper. Fortunately for Mercer, the scene was witnessed by Lieutenant-Governor Francis Fauquier from the porch of Charlton’s. The governor pulled Mercer to safety, before any harm could befall him. Mercer went on to resign his position, while the Stamp Act was repealed by Parliament in 1766.

After Charlton’s coffeehouse closed, the building went through a succession of owners, and its use varied between a tavern, store, and residence. In 1885, the property was purchased by Cary Peyton Armistead, who replaced the previous structure with a two-story house around 1890. In 1994, this house was lifted from its foundations and moved to a nearby location on North Henry Street.

Architecture

The process of investigating a structure for reconstruction begins with the remaining physical evidence, if any; while a fully intact structure would be ideal, this is rarely the case. At the Coffeehouse, physical evidence included the brick foundation, wooden fragments from the nineteenth-century Armistead House, and a variety of archaeological evidence.

After the Armistead House was moved in 1994, we realized that part of the foundations actually dated to the Coffeehouse’s original structure; with close study, nearly half of the foundations turned out to be primarily original. Later analysis showed that most of the individual bricks from the later portions originated in the earlier structure as well, and were simply reused when the Armistead House was built. Back on North Henry Street, staff members used dendrochronology to determine that a number of wooden elements in the Armistead House had also been reused from the original structure. Dendrochronology is a technique for dating objects analyzing the growth of tree rings.

After investigating the physical evidence, architectural historians look to documentary sources to further refine their model. This can include sources such as newspaper advertisements, journal entries, and property references. In the case of the Coffeehouse, evidence includes a series of advertisements, as well as a photograph from the 1880s.

Finally, remaining gaps in the model are filled based on what we know of the building’s history, combined with our architectural knowledge of the period and location. Research in Williamsburg and other colonial cities has given us a good understanding of buildings both typical and exceptional, granting us a strong base to work from. Ultimately, it's important that the various design decisions fit together and reinforce one another to create a cohesive and logical structure. When all these strategies and layers of evidence are combined, it allows us to develop a design that is as accurate as can be, at least until new evidence might appear.

Archaeology

The first Colonial Williamsburg-led archaeology occurred on the coffeehouse lot in 1996, not long after the Cary Peyton Armistead house was relocated. It followed early archaeological research in the late-1980s, and more significant but still preliminary excavations undertaken by Virginia Commonwealth University in 1995. Colonial Williamsburg's archaeological research, pursued in consultation with the Armistead family, continued until 1998. After a ten-year respite, the site was again analyzed in the summer of 2008, to explore a number of unexamined areas before the Coffeehouse reconstruction began.

Along with their work on the Coffeehouse’s foundations, the archaeologists' recovered the porch’s brick footings have, helping to define its location. The discovery of a thin layer of purple ash that had been swept from the porch, in turn, helped determine its size. Archaeology also discovered a drip-line around the structure, which demonstrated the overhang of the coffeehouse’s roof. On the east side of the site, archaeologists found the remains of a small outbuilding, the only one located on the property thus far.

While the work of archaeologists has had a significant bearing on the shape of the building, there is also a great deal that has been discovered about the way the site was really utilized. A prominent layer of more than 10,000 artifacts - primarily wine bottles and tobacco pipe stems - was found near the porch. On the north side of the building, archaeologists located a trash midden with over 70,000 artifacts.

These middens provided significant evidence of the day-to-day activity on the site, including food and beverage-related artifacts and fragments. Broken fragments from tea services show that Charlton had a wide-range of equipment for the beverage; this hints at the establishment’s social level, and also that tea may have been more popular within than coffee. Other ceramic and glassware fragments suggest that Charlton purchased inexpensive plates that were decorated to make them appear more valuable, but bought high-end items when they couldn’t be imitated. Finally, archaeologists discovered evidence that the coffeehouse served large amounts of veal and mutton, which (with the right preparation) could form the basis of higher-class meals.

Other finds on the site have included a Cherokee tobacco pipe, perhaps marking an official visit by Native Americans to the town, and a few human bones. The bones show dissection marks, and have copper wire attached, suggesting that they came from a skeleton used for scientific lectures. Archaeologists also located a number of clay crucibles. These may have been used by an assayer, to authenticate the value of coins and other precious metals. Another discovery included a variety of wig-making tools, showing that Charlton probably continued his original profession while the Coffeehouse was in business.