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A Short History of Architectural Research at Colonial Williamsburg

Architectural drafting room.
Architects and draftsmen for the Williamsburg Holding Corporation in the drafting room, 1932. Figures are identified in Singleton P. Moorehead's handwriting. (Special Collections 1986-5724)
Sketches of stair details.
Sketches of the Great Stair, The Wythe House, Williamsburg, Virginia. Page 5 of Singleton P. Moorehead's Field Notebook. (Special Collections T1987-725)

Origins of the Restoration

The 1926 decision to restore Virginia's colonial capital prompted an extensive investigation of the buildings of Williamsburg and its environs that continues to the present.

When the Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin persuaded John D. Rockefeller Jr. to finance the reconstruction of the city, one of their first tasks was to hire architects capable of this massive undertaking. Their choice was Perry, Shaw & Hepburn. The Boston firm had previously established themselves as supremely competent practitioners of the New England idiom of the Colonial Revival style.

Perry, Shaw & Hepburn established a Williamsburg design office to oversee the work and to expand, rapidly, their store of knowledge about the early architecture of the Chesapeake region. The group included (mostly) young, eager designers and scholars like Singleton Peabody Moorehead, Walter Macomber, John A. Barrows, Thomas Tileston Waterman, and Susan Higginson Nash, as well as the Boston landscape designer Arthur A. Shurcliff.

A historian sits in a milk house.
Ed Chappell recording milk house, 1982.

The Establishment of a Method

The scope of Goodwin's project—the restoration of an entire town—was unprecedented. This comprehensive vision meant that, unlike other projects that focused on grand houses and public buildings, Williamsburg's designers would also need to consider the commonplace landscapes of ordinary people. From the beginning, plans for the restoration included not just major sites like the Palace and the Capitol, but also the city's smaller houses, workshops, and even outbuildings like kitchens and smokehouses.

As a consequence, architectural research in Williamsburg has always involved both careful attention to ordinary buildings and field-based research. The restoration of the Thomas Everard House or the reconstruction of George Wythe's kitchen, to take two early examples, could not proceed by examining Georgian-era design manuals or hunting for design drawings in archives. Finding appropriate models for such buildings required studying buildings throughout the region and combining the evidence found there in thoughtful, sometimes imaginative ways.

A dilapidated slave quarter.
Cibula Slave Quarter, Prince George County, Virginia.
A historian takes wood samples.
Dan Miles taking samples for dendrochronology, 2009.
Costumed staff raise the Randolph Granary frame.
Frame-raising for the Peyton Randolph Granary reconstruction, 2004.

Evolving Techniques

Architectural historians' essential research on surviving early buildings continues to the present. In the early 1980s, a new generation of scholars arrived who would develop the work begun six decades earlier. They sought to make architectural research more precise, while broadening its scope to encompass the social qualities of architecture. Ed Chappell, Willie Graham, Carl Lounsbury, and Mark R. Wenger put Williamsburg at the center of a national trend to bring the insights of social history and anthropology to bear on the study of ordinary buildings, while systematizing their documentation in drawings, photographs, and narrative reports.

Today, Colonial Williamsburg's architectural historians gather data not just on design details but also on plan forms and building technology, while we are much more attentive than our predecessors to the social functions of houses.

In addition, our methods of analysis have become more technical and more precise. Whereas determining a date of construction in 1926 was an exercise in connoisseurship, modern historians can use the science of dendrochronology to determine the year in which a timber was cut. Similarly, finding a historic color used to require the laborious and imprecise scraping away of paint layers, but today analysts can examine paint chips in cross-section, at 200x magnification. Archaeology once focused on rapid digging to find building foundations. Now it includes the close study of soil stains and microscopic analysis of plant and animal remains, to reveal how Williamsburg has changed over time. These and other new technologies enable our judgments to be more precise, and our scholarship to rest on firmer foundations.

Costumed staff gather around the Coffeehouse.
Revolutionary City programming at R. Charlton's Coffeehouse, 2009.

Putting it Together

All of this work—from the technical analysis of paint to the careful recording of building frames in the field—underpins our designs for new reconstructions in the Historic Area while providing the raw material for our written scholarship.

Just as important, because of its emphasis on the social life of architecture, this research also informs interpretation in the Historic Area, from African American Programs to Historic Trades. Recent projects like the Peyton Randolph outbuildings (1998–2005), Charlton's Coffeehouse (2008–2009), the Anderson Armoury complex (2012–2013), and the Market House (2014–2015) testify to the continuing vitality and scholarly grounding of our program of architectural research and reconstruction.