Historic buildings are often resplendent against the backdrop of a picture-perfect day. They let us leave the 21st-century for a momentary glimpse of life long ago. Yet the hard work required to create those snapshots isn’t always blue skies and sunshine. One case in point now stands at Historic Jamestowne, cradle of modern American culture.
Jamestown Island today does not resemble the landscape of four hundred years ago, when the first permanent English colony was established. Traces of the original fort and contemporary structures are underground now. Preservation Virginia’s Nathalie P. and Alan M. Vorhees Archaerium tells guests the story of Jamestown through the artifacts archaeologists have uncovered.
Still, despite time and progress, there is a tangible link to Jamestown’s earliest days.
A tower that stood as the entrance to one of the settlement’s earliest churches occupies the island’s highest ground. The original 17th-century church burned and was repaired, but eventually fell into disuse and toppled. A reproduction has since been built. Through it all, the tower, though it lost its roof somewhere along the way, never came down. It is the only 17th-century structure above ground on Jamestown Island.
In 2010, Colonial Williamsburg partnered with Preservation Virginia, which owns part of Jamestown Island (along with the National Park Service), to secure the future of America’s first permanent English settlement and the remaining historic resources there. Subsequent inspections on the tower yielded a troubling revelation: Time and the elements had wreaked havoc on the brick structure. Though the church tower exists as a standing ruin, it is an irreplaceable and iconic edifice.
The architects and historians who set about remedying the tower’s issues were battling a merciless opponent. Age alone exacts a steep toll on old buildings because construction materials naturally disintegrate over time. Add to that unending cycles of hot and cold, wet and dry, light and dark, all of which accelerate this decay, and you have less than ideal conditions for historic preservation. Nature’s day-to-day processes have no sentimentality for the heritage we hold dear.
“Decay is not always because something has been neglected, it’s also just a matter of age,” said Dave Givens, senior staff archaeologist for Preservation Virginia. “Preservation is a dynamic process, and part of that is keeping up with all the natural forces that cause structures to deteriorate.”
Beyond daily and seasonal variations, groups charged with protecting historic sites must also consider long-term climactic changes. A recent report called National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites, issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists, identified two dozen cultural sites around the country vulnerable to climate change. Jamestown Island, much of which is at sea level, was one of them.
While the portion of land containing the buried remains of the original fort and the existing church tower seem safe from rising water for now—they’re 15 feet above sea level—many outlying areas that hold potentially valuable archaeological evidence may be underwater soon. Harmony Hunter explores the threat to Jamestown Island posed by rising seas with Preservation Virginia archaeologist Bill Kelso in this Past & Present podcast.
It doesn’t help that the well-meaning but less-knowledgeable preservationists of yesteryear often failed to approach historic sites with what we would consider diligence and vision, according to Matt Webster, director of architectural preservation for Colonial Williamsburg and project manager for the church tower’s restoration.
In the case of Jamestown’s church tower, officials in the early 20th-century tried to stave off further decay by using Portland cement to cap the exposed brick and stucco the interior walls. Portland cement is a limestone and clay mixture developed in the mid-19th century that becomes so rigid when cured that it’s still in use for many building applications. Like other building materials, however, Portland cement is not perfect. Webster explains that the concrete crumbled over time, allowing rainwater into places it was never supposed to be.
“We removed 18 tons of Portland cement,” Webster said . “Behind that we found original masonry that in some cases had turned to dust. We literally used a shop-vac to remove some of it.”
The team decided to fill in the gaps where the bricks and mortar had been ruined with materials of the same composition as what was originally there. For that, Colonial Williamsburg’s brickmakers furnished masonry made in the Historic Area.
Another challenge was shielding the tower from the elements guaranteed to come while maintaining its evocative appearance. After weighing a few options, Webster chose a glass roof, all but invisible to onlookers, but impenetrable to foul weather.
“The tower in modern times has always been remembered as a ruin, and that’s part of its appeal, so we wanted to keep it that way while still providing protection,” said Webster, who anticipates installation of the cover sometime in 2015.
The efforts by Givens, Webster and their colleagues ensure that, regardless of the what Mother Nature throws its way, the church tower will continue stand tall over Historic Jamestowne, where Preservation Virginia archaeologists day-after-day reveal the truths buried there, where Colonial Williamsburg’s American Indian Initiative brings to life the history of this land’s first inhabitants, where the goal of preserving and interpreting the birthplace of our home will carry on indefinitely.
“The tower project maintains a long-term relationship between preservationists and the site so that this will be here for the public to appreciate hundreds of years from now,” Givens said.
GUEST BLOGGER: BEN SWENSON
Ben Swenson lives in Williamsburg, Virginia with his wife and two sons. His writing career has led him to all sorts of odd corners of the world: he has jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, wrestled crab pots on a Chesapeake Bay work boat and taken a helicopter ride through a twisting river gorge. Odds are good you will find him outside with them somewhere when he is not chasing or telling stories.