Coffeehouse Conversations - A Recap

In honor of the Coffeehouse opening, we wanted to repost links to all of the Coffeehouse Conversations videos. As you may recall, these short videos document a broad-range of parts of the project, and feature many of our staff members who have worked on the project. Many thanks to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Division of Productions, Publications, and Learning Ventures, who produced all of these videos.

All of the videos require Adobe Flash® to view. If you don't have Adobe Flash installed, you can download a free version from Adobe's website.

Coffeehouse Conversations 10 - A Particular Charm

We've posted the tenth video in our Coffeehouse Conversations series; this episode is entitled A Particular Charm, and features Jim Horn, Vice President for Research and Historical Interpretation.

In this episode, Jim gives a summary of the project and its results. He describes the project's attempts to create as accurate an 18th century Coffeehouse as possible, inside and out. Jim also discusses the role of a Coffeehouse in Colonial society, as well as the role of Charlton's in the environment and experience of Colonial Williamsburg. Coffeehouse Conversations is produced by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's division of Productions, Publications, and Learning Ventures.

The video is 4 minutes and 37 seconds in length, and requires Adobe Flash® to view. If you don't have Adobe Flash installed, you can download a free version from Adobe's website.


Recently, we received a few questions on the blog regarding about plaster. Fortunately, Matthew Webster was again nice enough to share his expertise on the topic. Matt is Conservator of Architecture here at Colonial Williamsburg, and is deeply involved in the Coffeehouse project.

The plastering project here at the Coffeehouse is largely accurate to the 18th century. Many people expect to see rough surfaces, poor materials, and distressed finishes; however, eighteenth century craftsmen were not only masters of their trade, but also of their materials. Plastering in the following manner has a number of advantages over modern techniques, especially when dealing with period framing.

All of our framing was cut by hand and arrived “green,” which means there can be variations in the surfaces, as well as movement long after the frame has been erected. Wallboard and gypsum plaster are very rigid, and these variations and movement would show as buckles in the wall or cracks. Lime plaster is much more flexible and can take minor shifts. It is also self healing, as the moisture will allow available lime to migrate to cracks.


The plastering process begins at the framing where lath is affixed as a “skeleton,” which the plaster is attached to. Instead of wooden lath, we have used metal lath, which is really the only aspect of plastering where we have used non-18th century material. While both types are functionally equivalent, and do not affect the finished look of the wall, the metal lath saves us an enormous amount of time and materials.

On the other hand, the Coffeehouse’s porch ceiling is being built using wooden lath. Its proximity to the street means that guests can view the whole process, done in a historically accurate style by a costumed member of the Historic Trades department. The wooden lath is split by hand, and is then attached with nails. Nearly 1,600 of these lath nails were produced at the Colonial Williamsburg blacksmith shop for this ceiling alone. It will take several days to split the lath and nail it to the ceiling.


We do have pieces of original plaster from the Coffeehouse, and these samples tell us the depth, number of layers, and makeup of the plaster. Analysis tells us the plaster is made up of four primary components. Hydrated lime is the first major component, and is made from burnt oyster shell that has been slaked and placed into a pit for at least six months. The oyster shells for the Coffeehouse plaster was burnt and slaked in the Colonial Williamsburg brickyard. For more information on slaking lime, see this blog entry from March.

The second component is sand: Sand is a major component in the coloring and texture of plaster, and is also a bulking agent which doubles the overall volume of the plaster. The sand used for the original Coffeehouse plaster had a very fine and worn grain, indicating that it most likely came from a creek or river. Sand with similar color and grain was obtained for the new plaster, giving it a similar appearance.

Our final two components are brick dust and clay; though less well-known than lime and sand, they were almost always present in plaster and mortar. Clay acted like a plasticizer, which allowed the plaster to stick as it was applied, as well as spread easily on the surface. On the other hand, brick dust was added as a strengthening agent, as was a small amount of horse hair. The mixture ratios for the plaster are 45% lime putty, 45% sand, 7% clay, and 3% brick dust.


Once the lath is installed, a scratch coat is placed. This is a thick layer of plaster, heavy with aggregate (sand), which serves as a leveling layer. The depth of this layer varied depending on changes in the wall, but averaged about 3/4-inch. Once applied, the surface is scratched to allow the next layer to adhere. At the Coffeehouse there are only two layers, the second being the finish coat. The finish coat is approximately 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick. This layer is troweled to a smooth finish, just as it would have been in the 18th century. The walls are then kept wet and troweled for 4 days to allow the plaster to slowly dry and avoid cracking.

Surface Treatment

The plaster needs to cure for no less than 6 months before oil based paints or wallpaper can be applied. This is due to a process called saponification, where the alkalinity of the plaster degrades the oil and glue causing failure. To bridge the time between the completion of plastering and the finish treatments, whitewash is applied, which is also a common 18th century practice. The whitewash applied to plaster is simply thinned lime putty, and has roughly the consistency of milk. Approximately six coats are applied; the whitewash provides a temporary finish treatment, and also helps to heal micro cracks in the plaster.

Photos by Peter Inker and Joshua Muse

Cabot's Quilt and July 11th Visit

First off, for those who might have been following the insulation discussion, I found a few good images of Cabot's Quilt on the photo site Flickr. The photographer's name is Alyssa Umsawasdi, and she took the photos while deconstructing her house back in 2007. Alyssa was nice enough to let me link to her images:

Secondly, I'd like to start coordinating details for those who are interested in visiting the Coffeehouse site on July 11th. I'd appreciate it if those who are so inclined could e-mail me at [email protected] so that we can start working out the details.

Long Lost Podcast

We at the Coffeehouse blog just had a realization - although a podcast about the project has been available since last August, we've never made any mention of it on the blog. Our apologies for the delay.

Although it was recorded before most of the construction took place, the podcast still contains interesting information and insights about the project. It features Ed Chappell, who is Roberts Director of the Department of Architectural and Archaeological Research, along with Lloyd Dobyns. The podcast was produced by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's department of Productions, Publications, and Learning Ventures. You can find other Colonial Williamsburg podcasts on our website.

Charlton's Coffeehouse Podcast:

Please note, Quicktime 7 (free) is required to view the image enhanced podcast.

New Articles Posted

We wanted to mention that we've posted three new Coffeehouse-related articles to the site. All three come from the Winter 2008/2009 issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter.

The first article is entitled “Resurrecting the Coffeehouse,” and is written by Edward A. Chappell. Ed is the Roberts Director of the Department of Architectural and Archaeological Research. The article describes the history of the Coffeehouse, and of our reconstruction project, with a particular focus on architectural concerns. Ed also details much of the evidence that played a part in the reconstruction.
Click here to read “Resurrecting the Coffeehouse”

Our second article is “Charlton's Coffeehouse Archaeology” by Mark Kostro, Andrew Edwards, and Meredith Poole. Mark is a project archaeologist, Andy is a staff archaeologist, and Meredith is a staff archaeologist and coordinator of public programs here at Colonial Williamsburg. Their article describes the archaeology that has occurred at the coffeehouse site, focusing primarily on the work done in the summer of 2008.
Click here to read “Charlton's Coffeehouse Archaeology”

The third is an excerpt from the article “English Coffeehouses” by Emma L. Powers. Lou is an historian in the Department of Historical Research. The excerpt describes the exciting exotic new beverages that became popular in England in the 17th century - coffee, tea, and chocolate.
Click here to read an excerpt from “English Coffeehouses”

The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter is a publication produced for employee education, and contains articles primarily written by staff researchers and interpreters. An index of articles is available on the library website here, as well as information on getting a copy of an article through interlibrary loan, or in-person at the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library.

Coffeehouse Conversations 2 - Brick and Mortar

A still image from the second episode of Coffeehouse Conversations

(Click on the image above to open the video page - then click on the second thumbnail image from the left)

We've released the second video on the reconstruction of the Coffeehouse. In this episode, we get to see some of the work with the building's foundations, including the dismantling of bricks in the 19th century walls, and the production and firing of new bricks at Colonial Williamsburg brickyard.

The video features Director of Architectural and Archaeological Research Edward Chappell, and Supervisor of Historic Masonry Trades Jason Whitehead. It was produced by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's division of Productions, Publications, and Learning Ventures.

The video is 5 minutes and 13 seconds in length, and is in Quicktime® format. If you don't have Quicktime Player installed, download a free version from Apple's website.

Coffeehouse Conversations 1 - Archaeology

A still image from the first episode of Coffeehouse Conversations

(Click on the image above to open the video page)

We've released the first of a series of videos on the reconstruction of Charlton's Coffeehouse. This episode describes the site's archaeology, including artifacts both expected and unexpected, and what we've been able to learn from them.

The video features Staff Archaeologist Andy Edwards, Project Archaeologist Mark Kostro, Associate Curator of Collections Kelly Ladd, and Director of Architectural and Archaeological Research Edward Chappell Edward Chappell. It was produced by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's division of Productions, Publications, and Learning Ventures.

The video is 3 minutes and 50 seconds in length, and is in Quicktime® format. If you don't have Quicktime Player installed, download a free version from Apple's website.

Archaeology at Charlton's Coffeehouse

Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists began working at the Coffeehouse site in 1996, soon after the Cary Peyton Armistead House was moved to North Henry Street. Archaeology continued until 1998, and succeeded in locating the front porch and the outbuilding to the northeast, as well as gaining insight into the historic topography of the site.

Midden - A mound or deposit containing shells, animal bones, and other refuse that indicates the site of a human settlement.

Archaeologists also located a large trash midden, which contained tens of thousands of artifacts; these fragments provided evidence of the daily operations of the coffeehouse. Another midden was found further to the north, and contains artifacts from the later period when the building served as a tavern. A third midden was located at the building's front, and contained primarily fragments from wine bottles.

The most recent period of archaeology began in 2008, with the news that the Coffeehouse would be reconstructed. During this time, archaeologists continued to examine questions of topography, and found a retaining wall in the southwest corner of the site. They also investigated areas in and around the coffeehouse that would be excavated as part of the construction process, in order to ensure no important historical information was lost during the building's reconstruction.

Photos by Tom Green and Kelly Mihalcoe

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3D Laser Scanning

In advance of the changes that would occur during the reconstruction process, Colonial Williamsburg's Digital History Center recorded the current conditions of the coffeehouse foundations using a 3D laser scanner. We worked in concert with FARO Technologies and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.

The DHC has previously used laser scanning for several buildings in the historic area, but never before in the role of "digital conservation", recording a structure in advance of a significant change.

A 3D laser scanner is a device that records the size and shape of a three-dimensional feature. Laser scanning can be used to record structures, both interior and exterior, objects of all types, and landscapes. Using a laser and a rotating mirror, the scanner measures the distance to a surface thousands of times in a minute, ultimately creating a 3D representation from millions of points. When combined with digital images taken at the same time, we can create a full-color 3D recreation of a location or object.

Photos by Joshua Muse

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