Colonial Williamsburg® The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Official History and Citizenship Website

Page content
Reset text sizeResize text larger

April 11, 2016

18th-Century Rats' Nest Treasures, Window Elements, Bricks and Paint Fragments Offer Important Clues to Colonial Williamsburg's Architectural Legacy

A New Exhibition Opening in May 2016, Will Explore
How the Area Was Built in the 18th- and Early 19th-Century

How were buildings constructed in the 18th- and early 19th-centuries in Virginia? What did the builders use? What can the collecting habits of 85 generations of rats reveal? Valuable clues and answers can be found in the architectural objects and fragments from both surviving and demolished buildings and will be revealed in Architectural Clues to 18th-Century Williamsburg, which opens on May 28, 2016, and will remain on view indefinitely at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. The exhibition will explore objects in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s architectural collection illuminating seldom-seen details and information used to inform work in the Historic Area from the 1930s to present day. Fascinating in its scope, Architectural Clues not only will enhance visitors of all ages’ exploration of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area but also architecture aficionados’ understanding of period construction outside the area. These fragments can inform how architectural preservationists know what they know and how to do what they do.

“Like antiques and works of art, early buildings retain abundant information about past cultures,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Foundation’s chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation, and museums. “When properly studied, they speak to us about everything from historic trade practices to social hierarchies. As the steward for scores of historic structures and thousands of architectural fragments, Colonial Williamsburg is an excellent laboratory for such inquiries. At the same time, regular advances in methods of scientific inquiry now allow us to learn from these materials is ways that were unimagined even ten years ago. This exhibition will provide a window into this fascinating subject.”

The earliest objects in Architectural Clues are the c. 1715 finial and weathervane rod from Colonial Williamsburg’s Magazine. Constructed in 1715 as storage for the arms and ammunition dispatched from London for the defense of the colony, these objects were removed from the building after the roof caught fire in 1898. Wetherburn’s Tavern (one of the most successful and popular taverns in Williamsburg in the 1750s) provided a wealth of architectural treasures that will be featured including 18th-century shingle courses. Roof elements such as these help to inform shingle sizes and roof design throughout the Historic Area. The tavern also revealed 18th-century window elements, including a sash, sash weights and pulleys. Perhaps the most amusing finds are the generational nests that 85 generations of rats over 127 years made as their homes in Wetherburn’s Tavern. The nests revealed an extraordinary snapshot of life within a 300-foot diameter space; the cache of treasures included fragments of documents, pieces of furniture, ceramics, a corn cob, textiles, shoes, silver utensils and much, much more.

“All of the objects and fragments collected throughout the Historic Area give us important insight into 18th-century architectural design and are instrumental in informing the work there,” said Matt Webster, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s director of the Grainger Department of Architectural Preservation. “These are just a few pieces from our collection of over 15,000 architectural fragments, and they represent a very important research tool for the Foundation and outside scholars,” said Mr. Webster’s co-curator of Architectural Clues, Dani Jaworski, associate curator of architectural collections.

Another important piece in the exhibition is the Bruton Parish Church pilaster and capital, which are believed to have been carved in England. This piece and some of the other fragments removed from the church during the 1905-07 restoration were kept by a local resident. During restoration work in the 1920s, the fragments were found in the cellar of a building on the Raleigh Tavern property and served as models for the paneling, capitals and large round window seen today in the church. Etched window panes showing hidden and rarely seen construction details; stair posts, rails and balusters showing the hierarchy of 18th-century architectural designs; a variety of interior decorative treatments, including an ornate pilaster and cap section, a faux-marble painted mopboard and a stone paver with a mason’s mark from the Governor’s Palace (the home to seven royal governors, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson) are also among the highlights of Architectural Clues.

Bricks also tell an intriguing story in the exhibition. A view of glazing strips in one brick indicates the size of the gaps between stacked bricks that allowed heat to rise in the kiln when they were made. The glazed line also informs what happened during the final stages of brick making. In another example, a “dimpled” look appears as a result of the brick having been briefly rained on during the drying process. Proof that the bricks were hand-made can be seen in a third example that has a fingerprint in it where the maker picked it up when it was still wet.

In the 18th century, color told a story. The exhibition will examine how Colonial Williamsburg’s approach to paint analysis from the 1930s to its use of modern analytical equipment today has helped conservators understand the use of different paints and colors. Architectural Clues will uncover the process of developing an accurate view of the materials and true colors used in the 18th century, which helps inform the streetscape seen today in the Historic Area.

Architectural Clues to 18th-Century Williamsburg was made possible through the generosity of Don and Elaine Bogus.

For families and history fans, architectural and design scholars and anyone interested in a greater understanding of how buildings were constructed in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Architectural Clues to 18th-Century Williamsburg is not to be missed.

Media Contact:
Joe Straw