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What Our Architectural Historians Do

Researching Williamsburg's Historic Structures

Front of the Reid House.
Reid House, Williamsburg.
Everard House staircase.
Main stair, Thomas Everard House, Williamsburg.

Restoring the Historic Area

Williamsburg has not always looked as it does today. Beginning in the 1920s, before the Palace, the Capitol, or the Raleigh Tavern could be reconstructed, architectural historians needed to determine how those buildings looked in the 18th century. This information came from excavated foundations, from drawings and written descriptions, and from surviving 18th-century buildings in England and America. Most important, however, was Williamsburg's surviving architecture. Through close study of these buildings in their historic context, we have learned—and continue to learn—what was distinctive about the architecture of this place, and how to aid in its restoration.

Though much has changed over the decades, our work is still grounded in a combination of archaeological, documentary, and field research. Our stock-in-trade includes written analysis of historic buildings, measured drawings, and photographs. This research material constitutes an essential and growing archive on the early American built environment, and informs both our written work and our reconstruction designs.

Historians take paint samples from a baluster.
Ed Chappell and Kirsten Moffitt take paint samples at the Thomas Everard House, Williamsburg.

The Care and Interpretation of Buildings

Our chief responsibility is the care and scholarly interpretation of the buildings of the Historic Area. Though we have learned much in more than 80 years of study, new analytical techniques—like dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) and cross-section paint microscopy—allow us to make fresh discoveries on familiar sites. We continue, for example, to learn about the application of color throughout Williamsburg, and some changes, like the repainting of the Peyton Randolph House red-brown, or the Robert Carter House a deep gray, have been quite obvious and sparked visitors' curiosity.

Other developments have been more subtle but equally significant, like the discovery, thanks to paint research and dendrochronology, that it was the gunsmith John Brush, rather than mayor Thomas Everard, who installed the ornamental stair at the Everard House.

Wood pigeon holes.
Surviving pigeon holes at the White Store, Isle of Wight County, Virginia.

Developing Historical Context

The Foundation's architectural scholars continue to broaden our perspective by studying buildings throughout the region, helping us understand Williamsburg, and its significance, in context. For certain building types, like workshops, market houses, or theaters, there are so few comparable buildings that survive in our region that we look elsewhere to find suitable models. And so the research trail has taken us beyond the region in search of markets and theaters in England, for example.

We also look beyond buildings for relevant data, collecting information from archival sources like tax records, estate inventories, and personal letters. Our goal is to build as complete a record as possible of the buildings of Williamsburg to enrich our interpretation of this place.

Book cover for The Chesapeake House.
The Chesapeake House, published 2013.
The brick, two-story Ludwell-Paradise House.
Ludwell-Paradise House, Williamsburg.

Sharing our Discoveries

One consequence of our active architectural research is that we have developed a very deep archive of material about the early American built environment. We share this knowledge with our visitors through our restorations and reconstructions in the Historic Area, and most recently through the 3D interactive model presented in Virtual Williamsburg.

We also present it to a wider audience through an active program of scholarly presentations and publications. The most thorough summary of this work is in our 2013 book The Chesapeake House, and we have presented specialized research in scholarly journals as well as more popular sources, including blogs and magazines.

Serving the Community

Colonial Williamsburg's architectural historians serve our community through active participation in preservation and design in the City of Williamsburg. We pay particular attention to places surrounding the Historic Area, including Merchants Square and the Stryker Center complex. Through direct advocacy and through membership on the city's Architectural Review Board, Foundation staff ensure that the environment surrounding the restored area is of high quality and visually complementary to the 18th-century town.

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