Thursday, July 28, 2011

Keeping the Historic Building Trades Alive

We visited Colonial Williamsburg a couple of weeks ago. We enjoy the atmosphere and the step back in time. I am sure there are those who object to the view of history that Colonial Williamsburg provides or the fact that the colonial city is mostly reconstructed, but I say if visitors go away from there having learned more about the American Revolution and the basic tenets on which our country was founded, then that far overshadows any objection of the place. 

 Colonial Williamsburg's tradespeople help to create an atmosphere and teach people that 18th century life wasn't as easy as one-stop shopping at WalMart.  The tradespeople demonstrate how things are made and answer questions while they are working.  Weavers, spinners, basket makers, cabinet makers, blacksmiths, gunsmiths, coopers, wheelwrights...It is fascinating to see the old tools and skills needed to make things we take for granted today. 

Along with trades needed to take care of basic day-to-day needs, Colonial Wiliamsburg keeps the historic building trades alive. Much of the area surrounding Duke of Gloucester Street has been reconstructed based on archaeological digs, historical papers, drawings, and assumptions based on knowledge of other period buildings. Reconstruction has continued since the 1920s when John D. Rockefeller began the process. 

Often, when you visit, an archaeological investigation is underway to discover the details of an old building or a building is being reconstructed using historic methods. While we were there, the brick makers were forming bricks to dry in the sun. The brick kiln had just been fired - you could see the heat rising from it despite the 90 air degree temperature. Carpenters were working on the rafters "new" building near the blacksmith shop. Part of the roof structure was laid out on the ground while the carpenter cut a tenon joint on a rafter that would be fit in later. He said the boards had been pit sawn and that the lumber was from trees grown nearby. Wood roof shingles were being split nearby. 

The more you ask, the more you learn about the historic building trades, the strength and longevity of the buildings, and the pride the workers take in the construction.   Hopefully visitors can apply that to their surroundings when they return home and understand better the long-term, quality construction of old and historic buildings vs. the short-term, consumable construction of many buildings built today.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Cherry on Top of a Historic Building

I've been thinking about chimneys.  Maybe it's all the talk of Christmas in July (Santa Claus, you know) or maybe it's because we've got some whimpy little chimneys on our project house.  There are 2 chimneys and it looks like every room had a coal stove, but no fireplaces, so there was no need for more than a narrow passage for the smoke.  The chimney that ends in the kitchen is propped on 2x4s and didn't even reach to the basement.  Since there's no real reason to keep these chimneys and they aren't what you'd call an architectural feature, we're going to tear them down when the roof is redone.  

On our own house, we had the two chimneys rebuilt and lined so that we could use one for the boiler exhaust and possibly gas logs in the shallow fireplace one day.  The other chimney appears to never have been used (it had no soot or penetrations) and seems like it's only there to provide some symmetry to the American Four Square.  

Back in the day, chimneys were just one area that masons were able to show their skill and pride in their work.  There are gorgeous examples throughout the country that are most definitely architectural features that help to define the historic character of their buildings.  Check out some great examples below and don't forget to look up!

Bacon's Castle, Surry, VA

Shirley Plantation, Charles City, VA

Westover, Charles City, VA

Smithfield Plantation, Blacksburg, VA

Frontier Culture Museum, Staunton, VA

Falling Water, Mill Run, PA