What’s wrong with this 1955 postcard? Well, a few things, if we’re talking about how 18th-century Williamsburg would have really looked. Colonial Williamsburg’s “hostesses” used to wear formal hoop skirts. Duke of Gloucester Street used to have a lot more trees. But ongoing research has revised and enlarged our understanding of how the town looked, and how we interpret it. Today our interpreters wear more everyday clothing, and there are fewer trees.
Another revision is now imminent. The Raleigh Tavern is getting a front porch.
The Raleigh Tavern was Colonial Williamsburg’s first exhibition building, opening its doors to the public on Sept. 16, 1932. The original structure was the site of many significant events in the Revolutionary era. Lord Dunmore dined there; Jefferson danced there. Everything from slaves to the confiscated property of loyalists was auctioned from its steps. Phi Beta Kappa was founded there in 1776. And crucially, it was the meeting place where Virginia’s revolutionary leaders formed a nonimportation association and the colony’s Committee of Correspondence.
In Dec. 1859, decades after the removal of the capital to Richmond had turned Williamsburg into a quieter Southern town, the Raleigh Tavern was burned down—“willfully,” according to a newspaper report.
As the town’s restoration began in the 1920s, plans for the reconstructed Raleigh did not include a porch. While it was thought that it had a porch added at some point, the timeline was not entirely clear.
Gradually this perception changed, in no small part inspired by the Virtual Williamsburg project, which has made it possible to visualize the built landscape in new ways. The “first draft” of the Raleigh porch on Virtual Williamsburg is shown above. If you haven’t seen the website yet, please do visit. It reflects our current thinking on how the city looked in the late 1700s. You’ll see that it doesn’t look precisely like the streetscape of the Historic Area, and those differences are a reflection of the ongoing program of research at the foundation.
“We’d do it differently if we were starting over today,” says architectural historian Jeff Klee. But he emphasizes that the addition of the porch is a modest intervention designed to make the building more historically accurate while minimizing the alterations to the existing building which is now historic in its own right.
Much of the preliminary research has been done. Scattered pieces of documentary evidence have been buttressed by architectural historian Carl Lounsbury’s work on Chesapeake taverns, which showed that many had open front porches, often finished like interior rooms, where people could sit and talk. Last year, an excavation at Wetherburn’s Tavern, just across Duke of Gloucester Street from the Raleigh, identified the exact location of its porch.
This summer, as recent guests have noticed, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist Mark Kostro is leading the annual Archaeological Field School, run in conjunction with the College of William and Mary, on the site. It’s the most meaningful excavation there since 1929. The current work is both deeper and more extensive, and it’s already proved useful, exposing intact 18th-century layers.
The dig is expected to continue into early 2017. As work progresses, artifacts (such as those in the slideshow above) will be collected and analyzed. Evidence for the porch and any other building details will be incorporated into new architectural drawings. The preliminary design used in Virtual Williamsburg will be amended and improved to reflect this new evidence, and the final design will be submitted to the city of Williamsburg for approval, hopefully early next year. Once the project gets the green light, actual construction will begin.
The Raleigh Tavern porch project is generously supported by Colonial Williamsburg Trustee Cynthia H. Milligan and Robert Milligan of Lincoln, Neb.
If you’d like to follow the project, you can check it out from the brand new Raleigh Tavern webcam. Previously, a webcam that was installed on the tavern to offer a close-up view the archaeological work was fried in a recent electrical storm and we asked for your help in replacing it. Thank you to everyone who supported the endeavor, your support is greatly appreciated! Any surplus funds went to The City Beautiful Fund, dedicated to the preservation of Williamsburg’s buildings and gardens.
For almost 90 years Colonial Williamsburg has undertaken the massive project of bringing Virginia’s colonial capital back to life. The Raleigh Tavern porch is a only the latest step in that process. Projects great and small, from the construction of the Market House to new paint colors, attempt to move us closer to that vision. It is only possible through ongoing research, diligent stewardship, and your support.
Thanks to Wayne Reynolds for the pictures of the current excavation and artifacts unearthed at the Raleigh Tavern.