A month ago, I dragged myself out of my apartment at 3:30am to drive 5 hours to my favorite childhood vacation spot, Colonial Williamsburg. Thankfully, at 5:30am, D.C. traffic was a breeze! I was on my way to Virginia to meet with curators and conservators to discuss Williamsburg's two Delft tile fireplaces.
For those of you who aren't familiar, Colonial Williamsburg is a living history museum with historical reenactors. It interprets Virginia's capital city in the time around the Revolutionary War for modern audiences. Established in 1928, Colonial Williamsburg contains historic homes, restored storefronts, and reconstructed buildings from Williamsburg's colonial past.
the Colonial Revival and Colonial Williamsburg
Warren G. Harding won the election of 1920 on his campaign promise--a "return to normalcy," or a return to a romanticized golden age of America. This nationalist, isolationist rhetoric conjures a simplistic, rose-colored image of the past, indulging America's yearning to return to how things had been before they became entangled in foreign wars. As a more benign side-effect of the rise of nationalism, Americans also began to consider the importance of preserving significant historical landmarks. Previously, the 1876 Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia and the 1893 celebration of the 401st anniversary of Columbus's arrival, revived an interest in everything "patriotic" and "colonial." The so-called Colonial Revival lasted roughly from the 1880s to 1940.
The Colonial Revival renewed interest in Williamsburg's history. In the 1920s, residents of Williamsburg, like Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of Bruton Parish Church, as well as wealthy donors like the Rockefellers championed the preservation and revitalization of the colonial capital of Virginia, where many historic buildings had burned down, been demolished, or were in a state of disrepair and neglect. Besides its important colonial legacy, Williamsburg is home to the second oldest university in the United States, the College of William & Mary, founded in 1693 (and my secret dream school). The College boasts such illustrious alumni as Thomas Jefferson and two other presidents, as well as Jon Stewart. On its grounds rests the Wren Building, the oldest university building in America.
Colonial Williamsburg Rebuilt
In consultation with benefactors John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, W.A.R. Goodwin purchased the first building for the Williamsburg project in 1927--the George Wythe House. Other houses and buildings soon followed and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was created the following year.
One of the goals of the foundation involved rebuilding the iconic Governor's Palace, residence of Virginian governors until the capitol moved to Richmond in 1780. The palace burned to the ground in 1781. In 1930, Egyptologist Prentice Duell was drafted to conduct an archaeological excavation of the site where the palace had once stood. Amongst many other finds, the archaeological dig unearthed eight complete Delft tiles and many, many fragments. The Palace was rebuilt on its original foundations in the 1930s using the information gathered from excavations, period drawings, and Thomas Jefferson's blueprints for a proposed renovation.
Delft Tile Fireplaces
My trip to Colonial Williamsburg was prompted by, you guessed it, Delft tiles! The eight complete tiles found by Duell's team were incorporated into two fireplace surrounds in the reconstructed Governor's Palace. As part of my research trip, I had the amazing opportunity to go behind the scenes of the Governor's Palace before it opened to the public in the morning (thus the early start). Six purple manganese Biblical tiles from the original palace were mixed with tiles probably acquired from antiques dealers to create a complete fireplace surround. These adorn the fireplace in the "little middle room," a staging area for Williamsburg employees.
The two cobalt blue Delft tiles found by archaeologists were placed in the fireplace of the northeast upstairs bedroom, also supplemented by purchased tiles.
After my trip into the Governor's Palace, archaeological conservator, Emily Williams, led me on a behind-the-scenes tour of Williamsburg's conservation labs. While conservators with specialties found at Winterthur like objects, furniture, textiles, paper, and paintings work there, Williamsburg also has conservators of upholstery, musical instruments, and archaeological objects! It was a fantastic opportunity to see all these specialties in one building and the amazing objects and works of art that they work on. After my tour, I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Williamsburg, enjoying a ginger ale and ginger cake at the King's Arms and enjoying the local wildlife.
As discussed in last month's blog post, Winterthur and Williamsburg contain some of the most impressive examples of colonial American period rooms--especially of Delft tile fireplaces. The fireplace surrounds at both institutions were installed in the 1920s-1940s using unconventional and non-traditional mounting materials. Both of Williamsburg's fireplaces were installed using Portland Cement, similar to the Bertrand Room at Winterthur. Both Williamsburg and Winterthur help give modern viewers a sense of the colonial past. It was a wonderful experience to go behind-the-scenes at one of my most beloved childhood destinations. This kind of access to history is one of the perks of being a conservator! I'm so grateful to the conservators and curators who made this trip possible, especially Emily Williams, Amanda Keller, and Dani Jaworski.
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Winterthur Postgraduate Fellow in Objects Conservation