A New Face for an Iconic Place
Architectural Historians balance respect for Raleigh Tavern's design with new findings on its porch
by Jeffrey E. Klee
When complete, the front of the Raleigh Tavern will resemble this rendering, which is based on a body of evidence collected about the existence of a porch.
Scholars gave great weight to Lossing's drawing when reconstructing Colonial Williamsburg's first exhibition building.
The first clear documentary reference to a porch on the Raleigh Tavern was this advertisement, published in 1773 in The Virginia Gazette.
Archaeologists re-exposed the square piers for the east end of the porch last summer, revealing there were several generations of open porches on the front of the Raleigh.
They also uncovered two new piers at the west end, defining the overall width of the porch that stood in 1773.
When journalist Benson Lossing came to Williamsburg in December 1848, his timing was fortuitous in one regard. He was early enough to see the Raleigh Tavern's Apollo Room before remodeling began.
Lossing was preparing his Pictorial Field Book of the American Revolution, a book that highlights the role of the Raleigh as well as the Capitol and the Governor's Palace in the events leading to the American Revolution.
The Raleigh Tavern has a well-established reputation as one of the significant sites of the American Revolution. It was at the Raleigh that the burgesses met after being dissolved by Governors Botetourt in 1769 and Dunmore in 1774. And it was here that Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry drafted plans to establish a Committee of Correspondence that established a network of communication among Patriot leaders of the 13 Colonies.
Lossing was delighted to find the Apollo Room unaltered, but he lamented, "Carpenters were then at work remodeling its style, for the purpose of making it a ballroom. …Had my visit been deferred a day longer, the style of the room could never have been portrayed." His visit was not in time to see the front of the Colonial tavern, which had been recently rebuilt. He was told the front had previously looked just like the surviving rear wing and he took this description literally — the front of the Raleigh Tavern is shown in his drawing as a mirror image of the rear.
What he wasn't told was that the tavern once had a front porch.
Lossing's fateful drawing influenced the building long admired by visitors to the Historic Area, serving as a key piece of evidence for Thomas Waterman's reconstruction design for the first building in the Historic Area to be opened to the public.
But the drawing was wrong, as our recent reconsideration of the Raleigh makes clear.
The new porch that is being restored to the front of Waterman's Raleigh Tavern demonstrates the necessity of ongoing research and the need for inquisitive scholars who are skeptical of received wisdom and tireless in their pursuit of new evidence. Still, when it comes to making changes to an icon, a little scholarly humility is necessary. Waterman's porch-less Raleigh Tavern has been an icon of restored Williamsburg since 1932. The design for the new porch needed to balance our respect for Waterman's pioneering achievement with our mission to represent the Colonial-era town as faithfully as possible.
It wasn't easy.
Waterman's Iconic Design
Though Waterman had visited Williamsburg only once before coming to work on the Restoration, the 27-year-old architect quickly developed a reputation for his studious, even obsessive, investigation of the best historic buildings in Eastern Virginia. Years later, Fiske Kimball, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Waterman's friend and mentor, teased him for the intensity of his focus with the nickname Tidewaterman.
Waterman first recorded the archaeological remains of the Raleigh in a detailed measured drawing, carefully distinguishing between 18th- and 19th-century masonry, noting the location of chimney bases and extrapolating missing features from what survived intact. To fill in critical gaps in the remains, he drew upon documentary evidence, including the 1782 Frenchman's Map.
With the plan of the tavern based on the archaeological remains, he derived his designs for the interiors from regional precedent. He based the public dining room, for example, on the interior of Toddsbury, a historic house that still stands in Gloucester County.
For the interior of the Apollo Room, Waterman consulted an interior view by Lossing, although he added a deep, elaborate cornice at the ceiling, where Lossing showed no ornament at all. Waterman justified this change with the testimony of a Williamsburg resident who recalled a ceiling molding in this room as it was renovated in 1849. More important was his intuition that the most important public room in one of Virginia's best taverns would surely have an enriched cornice.
Despite accepting pieces of Lossing's exterior view at face value, such as the unusual hipped roof at the tavern's west end, Waterman recognized that the drawing was not an accurate representation. The location of the door did not align with the remains of what he thought was a broad brick stoop, so he aligned his door with this feature — even cheating slightly by adjusting the door's location about a foot eastward to make it precisely centered on the front wall. In this, as in the Apollo Room cornice, he trusted his intuition more than the evidence.
Architectural historians took another look at this evidence in 2009 as part of the Virtual Williamsburg project — a computer model that shows the public what current historians think the Colonial capital looked like on the eve of the Revolution. They were convinced that the Waterman design for the tavern was missing a key element: a long, one-story porch that stretched across the front of the building.
Though the most recent generation of Colonial Williamsburg's scholars will get credit for restoring the porch, they were not the first to notice its existence. In 1941, Mary McWilliams, a Colonial Williamsburg historian, observed that the Frenchman's Map seemed to show a porch. And even Waterman's 1929 drawing of the archaeological remains shows the foundation of what could only be a porch but which he identified as "probably early 19th century."
The porch hypothesis was tested by taking another look at the archaeological remains, the first excavation at the site since 1929. Archaeologist Mark Kostro led the Colonial Williamsburg/College of William & Mary Field School in an excavation last summer. They found clear evidence the tavern had a broad porch in 1775. They also discovered that structure was not the first — or last — porch on the front of the Raleigh.
Last summer's archaeological dig unearthed evidence the Raleigh Tavern had three different porches between the tavern's establishment in 1717 and its destruction in 1859.
The first porch was built in 1734 as an enclosure at the front door. What Waterman took to be a stoop was instead the foundation for this feature, which likely looked similar to the projecting porch on the front of Edinburgh Castle farther up Duke of Gloucester Street. The last porch iteration — the one Waterman identified in his archaeological drawing as "probably early 19th century" — extended the full width of the tavern and dates to 1791, when mason Humphrey Harwood accounted for the "building of pillars under & painting brick work about the porch" in his records.
The reconstructed porch is based on the tavern's second porch, the one that appears on the Frenchman's Map and stood in 1773, when the sale of Christiana Campbell's Tavern was held "before the Raleigh porch," as advertised in The Virginia Gazette. That porch sat on top of what had been a row of square piers that Waterman included in his archaeological drawing but declined to identify.
The evidence for this porch is fragmentary but persuasive. The square piers, two more of which were uncovered last summer, are set in lime mortar and align closely with the front of the 1734 porch, suggesting its foundations continued to support the open porch that replaced it. A layer of crushed oyster shell and marl delineates the front of this long porch, seemingly to protect against erosion from water coming off its roof. That layer extends past the piers at the east and west corners, clearly delineating its width. With the size of the porch settled, we needed to determine where to set the bust of Sir Walter Raleigh that stood over the tavern's entrance since at least 1752. It surely was not simply perched above the eaves. In fact, the surviving three- sided stone base for the bust implies it sat against a vertical surface. A few porches in period illustrations have shallow pediments above their entrances, including Holly Hill in Maryland. Such a pediment was included in the porch reconstruction at Christiana Campbell's Tavern, and so we have done the same at the Raleigh, providing a strong center for the porch as well as a perch for its patron.
But there was a bigger problem, one that highlights the challenges associated with revisiting a reconstruction.
Because of Waterman's scrupulously symmetrical design of the front elevation, the easternmost pier of the Revolutionary-era porch aligns with the easternmost window of the 1932 reconstruction, meaning the end of the porch roof would need to be supported by window glass — a feat as impossible today as it would have been in the 18th century. If the end of the porch and the window cannot coincide, how could we preserve the integrity of Waterman's design while being faithful to the archaeological remains?
Something had to give, and so we chose to change the placement of the windows by removing one of the three windows and adjusting the spacing of the two that remained. We did the same on the opposite wall. Waterman designed the public dining room to have seven windows, including one in the east wall. We reduced it to five.
As a result, the ground floor of the Raleigh Tavern will no longer appear symmetrical, as three windows will remain to the west of the entry. While this violates Waterman's belief that symmetry was the prevailing virtue of Georgian design, it accords well with our modern understanding of Colonial Virginia and the ways in which buildings evolved over time — piecemeal and, sometimes, haphazardly. Wetherburn's Tavern, across the street, was enlarged in a similar way. So were the John Blair House and the Benjamin Waller House. None of these, as enlarged, is symmetrical. Nor, it appears, was the Raleigh.
Our visitors should expect us to tell different stories in the Historic Area in 2017 than we did in 1932. So, too, should they expect new information to inform the restoration and reconstruction of our historic buildings. We see this in the continuous reconsideration of paint colors, as we have refined our techniques for microscopic paint analysis since the 1980s.
And at the Raleigh, we see it vividly in the restoration of an element that has been missing from the tavern since 1932.
A generous gift from Cynthia and Robert Milligan funded the reconstruction of the Raleigh Tavern porch.
Jeffrey E. Klee is the Shirley and Richard Roberts Architectural Historian for The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, where he has been on the staff since 2004.