A cutaway view of Charlton’s Coffehouse: one-and-a-half stories with a basement. The porch faces Duke of Gloucester Street.
Eighteenth-century foundations were incorporated into a later house's structure, but were excavated during Charlton's reconstruction.
The reconstructed coffeehouse becomes the newest reconstruction on Duke of Gloucester Street on its 2009 completion.
Exploring the Coffeehouseby Edward Chappell
Coffeehouses were prominent in the political and social landscape of eighteenth-century Williamsburg, but the marks they left on the ground itself were slight. Such grandees as planter William Byrd II, Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier, and lawyer Thomas Jefferson resorted to the city’s coffeehouses, but none left descriptions of the establishments. Fauquier, however, mentioned one in 1765, one that Colonial Williamsburg, based on a 1767 newspaper advertisement, figures was Charlton’s. Fauquier stood on its porch and protected Stamp Act agent George Mercer from an angry throng that the governor said he would have called “a mob did I not know that it was chiefly, if not altogether, composed of gentlemen of property.” Physical evidence fleshes out the thin documentary trail. When, in 1880, Cary Peyton Armistead built a Victorian home for his family on the site of what is now identified as Charlton’s, he recycled some of the old building’s fabric.
Armistead’s builders left two original foundation walls in place and recycled thousands of bricks salvaged from the other walls and a central chimney. The foundations reveal the locations and size of windows lighting the cellar, and indirectly indicate how laborers entered storage and workrooms from doorways facing the Capitol a few yards away. A brick-lined drain below the floor, and the outlines of 1750 wall sills on top of the foundations, help establish headroom in the cellar.
The footprint suggests spaces were arranged one behind the other, and at least two wide. Absence of evidence for a detached kitchen and a ghost of brick left by the chimney indicate that people cooked in the cellar. Remnants of a brick partition or pier in the west wall and a socket in the north one show that the cook room occupied the northeast corner, and opened into a side yard. This was a sooty, dark room with unplastered walls and ceiling. Surviving brickwork and certain reused bricks show wear caused by workers who sharpened instruments on the edges of the fireplace and propped open casements in the windows.
A hazy 1880s photo looking west along Duke of Gloucester Street shows the front of the deteriorating building and part of one end. This gives a general sense of its height, shows a low-pitched gable roof, and includes a generous end window with two nine-pane sash. Information from the photo dovetails with wooden remnants of the building, including two original sash that survived in the cellar.
The thirty-five-foot depth of the building required the roof to be built with heavy trusses much like those used to span the rooms at Wetherburn’s Tavern and the interior of Bruton Parish Church. Armistead’s builders salvaged pieces of these trusses to support the main floor in the new house, sufficient to reveal the pitch of the original roof and the number of trusses—five. This was helpful because the slope of the rafters matched the unusual angle shown in the photograph, and the middle truss pushed the chimney slightly off-center where it exited the roof.
Dozens of early joists reused in the Armistead House, which was moved to North Henry Street in 1995, provide further information about the 1750 first-floor plan. From the salvaged framing members dendrochronologist Jack Heikkenen determined that trees were cut after the growing season of 1749, confirming a 1750 reference to the structure being “lately built.”
Evidence of haggling over price is always of interest to the architectural historian. Surviving fragments offer glimpses of negotiations between builders and client. The builders used good-quality heart pine flooring, installed in a relatively economical manner. They wedged the boards tightly and secured them with headless iron brads, nailed through the face rather than into a hidden edge.
Joiners made at least one expensive front door, planing multiple small Roman moldings into the stiles and rails. They hung it on substantial iron HL hinges, but dispensed with the nicety of hiding the hinges behind the classical door casing. Like most of the woodwork, the door was first painted reddish-brown and later a tan made with yellow ochre and white lead pigment.
Three other doors surviving from Charlton’s are smaller and plainer. They were first painted tan, before grime accumulated on the surface, so they must have been early additions. These doors offer a glimpse deeper into the building, probably upstairs. There, most doorways were framed with plainer classical moldings or none at all, and parts of the roof frame projected awkwardly through the plaster. The low-pitched roof limited headroom and light, and partitions were made of vertical boards as little as one-inch thick.
Contrasts such as those between the refined first floor and ruder attic and cellar quarters in the coffeehouse animate the architecture of Williamsburg, and encourage us to consider what happened in those rooms at the fringes of commercial gentility.
Edward Chappell is Colonial Williamsburg’s Shirley and Richard Roberts Director of Architectural and Archaeological Research. He contributed to the spring 2008 journal “Carter’s Grove: Next Chapter.”