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Letter from Virginia: This Old Colonial Coffeehouse
by Eric A. Powel
Reconstructing a long-lost eighteenth-century building in Williamsburg
Nearly 50 wig curlers were found in the deposits behind the Coffeehouse. (Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg)
Architectural historian Edward Chappell moves slowly through the empty attic of the Charlton Coffeehouse, inspecting thick wooden rafters and admiring modern workmanship that draws on techniques and traditions that go back more than 250 years. The wood-frame house is one of some 500 reconstructed eighteenth-century buildings in the historic district of Colonial Williamsburg, the seat of Virginia’s government from 1699 to 1780, and now famous for the historical reenactments that have drawn generations of road-tripping families.
As director of architectural and archaeological research at Williamsburg, Chappell oversaw the reconstruction of the Coffeehouse, which was torn down in the late nineteenth century. It is the first major structure to be rebuilt on the district’s main Duke of Gloucester Street in 50 years, and went up in an era of new fidelity to historical accuracy. Intensive archaeological and architectural investigations began at the site in 1996 and produced an extraordinary amount of data about the structure, in large part thanks to modern techniques like the use of microscopy to reveal the smallest of details.
The hum of the crowd of tourists outside waiting their turn to enter the house is just barely audible in the attic, a warren of small rooms that won’t be ready for visitors any time soon.