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November 13, 2009

Nov. 20 opening ceremony for R. Charlton's Coffeehouse

More than 200 years since Americans gathered to discuss political and social issues in an authentic 18th-century coffeehouse, Colonial Williamsburg formally dedicates the R. Charlton Coffeehouse, the Historic Area’s newest exhibition building and the first major reconstruction on Duke of Gloucester Street in more than 50 years, at 4 p.m. Nov. 20.

“The reconstructed R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse is a most welcome architectural and educational addition to the Historic Area,” said Colin G. Campbell, president of Colonial Williamsburg. “It adds a significant new dimension and vibrancy to our understanding and portrayal of life in Williamsburg on the eve of the American Revolution. We are deeply grateful to Forrest and Deborah Mars for enabling Colonial Williamsburg to present a fuller picture of social and political life during that tumultuous era. The coffeehouse is sure to be of great interest and appeal to guests, scholars and artisans alike.”

The opening begins with re-enactment of the memorable event of 1765 when an angry crowd threatened Virginia’s appointed administrator of The Stamp Act until he was rescued and escorted to safety by the royal governor.
Following the opening ceremony, a walk-through open house of the building is available. The open house continues 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 21-22.

The coffeehouse will open daily for interpretive tours Monday, Nov. 23 when modern guests entering the R. Charlton Coffeehouse will be first to tour and learn about the pre-Revolutionary significance of his establishment before concluding the experience with the opportunity to enjoy a sample tasting of period coffeehouse beverages – coffee, tea or chocolate. The newest exhibition site in the Historic Area will reflect its 18th-century role as a gathering place for the politically connected as well as for the socially ambitious.

“Richard Charlton’s clientele included Governor Fauquier and his Council, members of the House of Burgesses and other government officials, prominent businessmen, the town’s fashionable elite, and important visitors, perhaps including members of a Cherokee delegation,” said Jim Horn, the Abby and George O’Neill director of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library and vice president of research and historical interpretation. “Alongside the Capitol, the Governor’s Palace and the Raleigh Tavern, R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse may well be among the most politically significant sites of pre-Revolutionary Williamsburg.”

In the 1760s, Charlton, younger brother of Williamsburg wigmaker Edward Charlton, followed the example of numerous London counterparts and opened his coffeehouse adjacent to the Capitol. There he likely served China tea imported from England, West Indian coffee, chocolate from the Caribbean rim and high-style cuisine, placing his establishment a cut above the collection of gentry taverns in the immediate vicinity. His coffeehouse soon became a stylish retreat from the mundane governmental activities of the Capitol, a gathering place for the social elite, a hotbed of political discussion and debate, and a place to hear the latest news from England as well as local gossip.

Archaeological evidence recovered from the coffeehouse site reflects the importance of fine dining as well as the consumption of tea, coffee and chocolate. Charlton offered an epicurean menu that included fish, shellfish, all kinds of meat and game, even peacock. Besides hot beverages, patrons could choose from a section of wines, beer and spirits. A fragment of a Cherokee pipe suggests the presence of Indians who may have been part of an official delegation. Other finds include a number of wig curlers, indicating Richard Charlton’s connection to the wig-making business, and several bones from an anatomical skeleton that was likely used in scientific presentations.

Coffeehouse furnishings will include carefully researched reproduction furniture, ceramics, glassware, hardware and other items representing the variety of activities that took place there. Reproduction maps, prints, advertisements and broadsides will adorn the walls and period newspapers in the main rooms will contribute to the ambience. Hand-printed wallpapers will cover the walls of the well-appointed private meeting room and the north room, both based on microscopic study of original building fragments.

“The furnishings and fittings at the coffeehouse have been chosen to create the most historically accurate setting that we can provide,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation and museums. “These tools will assist our interpreters in bringing the spaces to life for our guests.”

The reconstruction will provide an exciting new venue for Historic Area programming including using the porch as a principal stage for scenes from The Revolutionary City and special event performances. One of the most dramatic encounters of the period leading up to the American Revolution took place on the porch of R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse in 1765 when an angry crowd protesting the Stamp Act confronted the appointed collector for Virginia, George Mercer, and demanded he swear an oath that he would not distribute the official stamped paper. The royal governor, Francis Fauquier, intervened and saved Mercer from the crowd. Mercer later resigned his position and the Stamp Act was repealed by the British Parliament the following year.

R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse is built on its original foundations with 18th-century construction techniques and in compliance with modern building codes. The finished reconstruction will appear as close to the original structure as historical, archaeological and architectural evidence permits. It incorporates substantial portions of the building’s original brick foundations. The one-and-a-half-story framed portion of the building—35 feet square—is constructed of hand-sawn timber framing covered with cypress weatherboards and white cedar roof shingles. A central brick chimney allows two of the three first floor rooms to have functional fireplaces, while in the cellar a massive hearth is the central feature of the reconstructed kitchen. Research indicates that at least two of three first floor rooms were used for serving food and beverages which were prepared in the cellar. Other rooms on the first and second floors may have been rented or used for lodging or living quarters.

Reconstruction of R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse is possible through a $5 million gift from Forrest and Deborah Mars. Mr. Mars’ interest in Colonial Williamsburg began as a youngster during family visits to the restored colonial capital and he has been supporting The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for nearly 25 years. Forrest and Deborah Mars are Life Members of the Raleigh Tavern Society and are listed on the Courtyard of Philanthropy at the Visitor Center as among the foundation’s most generous benefactors.

Established in 1926, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women.

Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site at

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7281