Charlton's Coffeehouse


A long-absent address returns to Duke of Gloucester Street. Architectural Historian Ed Chappell explains the Charlton Coffeehouse reconstruction.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions.

The newest building in 50 years on Duke of Gloucester Street will be a very old one. Charlton's Coffeehouse will rise from the same footings that supported it hundreds of years ago. Architectural Historian Ed Chappell returns to the program to tell us more.

Will it be exactly the same, so far as you know, as it was when Mr. Charlton was serving coffee and tea?

Ed: Well, it will obviously be as precisely like its predecessor as we can make it, as we can learn. It's a really interesting project. As you say, the site itself is interesting. It's a kind of an inconvenient location in terms of topography. There was a big ravine that ran next to it, so it was sort of a postage-stamp sized lot that was partly within the ravine. So it's only, I think, because it was next to the Capitol. So it's a convenient site in the sort of ground zero of colonial Virginia. The coffeehouse, well it started out as a storehouse, but quickly became a coffeehouse, was built on that tiny lot.

Lloyd: We keep talking about rebuilding or reconstructing. When are you going to have it done?

Ed: Well, it’s going to move quite quickly. We've already started to take down some of the 1890s brick in quest of understanding of how the 1749-50 brick was arranged. We've found the outline of the original wooden sills. One thing I should say is the Victorian house itself, the Cary Peyton Armistead house, which sat on the site from the 1890s until about eight years ago was not demolished. It was moved down Duke of Gloucester Street in one of the more dramatic architectural events of the late 20th century. Williamsburg was to see this great two and a half story house moved the length of Duke of Gloucester Street and taken to another location on Henry Street.

So that was moved away, we've done archaeology for much of the site. There's other archaeology underway right now to the, on the left side where we're finding the grade changed dramatically. There was a substantial retaining wall that tried to address the uneven topography in building the coffeehouse. We are gingerly taking apart the 1890s foundations, finding that much of those are built from the brick of the mid 18th century house, and looking for evidence of where the cellar windows were, any evidence that we can find for the central chimney that we think served a cooking fireplace in the cellar, and heating fireplaces above.

We think the drinks and food were prepared in the cellar, a dirt-floored cook room in a relatively dark cellar, carried up winding stairs, through a little passage, and into one room that was for a sort of general gentry, if you will. Then a slightly smaller room to the east that was more private space. So it was like one of the rooms at Wetherburn's Tavern, say that a gentry patron could rent for a private party.

Lloyd: I read the dimensions of the coffeehouse. Once it's reconstructed, that's not a big building on the inside.

Ed: Well, it, we think it had three rooms on the first floor: two in the front a single one in the rear, and a pair of stairways. It was slightly smaller than the Victorian house. It's really a very interesting story that this storehouse was built, we know, in 1749-50. It survived into the 19th century with some alterations. But it survived into the era of photography, so we've got one or two very hazy photos of Duke of Gloucester Street that capture the front of the building.

Then about 1890, it was torn down to the foundations. Two of the walls, the east wall and the south wall, were largely demolished and the building was lengthened. The Victorian house was put on this kind of resuscitated foundations that were slightly longer than the coffeehouse.

Luckily for us, the builders of the Victorian house not only left substantial parts of the foundations intact with 1749-50 brickwork, but they chopped up pieces of the mid 18th- century building and used them as furring strips in the framing for a variety of purposes in the Victorian house. So there's a remarkable amount of data in these tiny fragments that survived in the Victorian house.

Lloyd: Now the coffeehouse, I read, had a front porch that opened onto Duke of Gloucester Street. The politicians and lawyers and movers and shakers used to sit out there and have their coffee on pleasant days. Do you plan to put the front porch back on it?

Ed: Absolutely. There are a limited number of truly intimate glimpses into everyday activity, or extraordinary activity in the town. One of the sort of wonderful glimpses into the mid 18th century is Governor Francis Farquier's description of an incident in front of the coffeehouse and on the porch.

He wrote to Whitehall, wrote to London, and reported that the seller of stamps, of basically tax stamps, was pursued down Duke of Gloucester Street by essentially an angry mob and that he, Farquier, was seated on the porch of the coffeehouse with some members of the governor's council. He said, "the coffeehouse to which I sometimes go," essentially.

So, he and other elite members of Virginia government were on the porch. Mercer approached the porch, sort of in hope of salvation. Farquier, in his own description at least, played a rather heroic role. He stepped forward, sort of spread out his arms, and turned back the crowd and insisted that they disband, which they eventually did. Mercer came onto the porch.

It's one of the, I think the porch is one of the interesting parts of this story. That if, particularly as we talk about the American Revolution in Virginia, and events that led up to it, the background to the Revolution, the Stamp Act crisis and how that played out in the town of Williamsburg, is nicely illustrated by the coffeehouse.

Lloyd: For some reason, in my head, Englishmen would have gone or descendants of Englishmen would have gone to the teahouse. Was coffee a regular beverage in those days in colonial Williamsburg?

Ed: I think that the decision to drink hot liquids without alcohol was a development that was focused particularly on genteel society in the 17th and then broadened in the 18th century. Coffeehouses were, to some degree, like taverns. But they focused on the genteel element of the town.

The sense was that you went to the coffeehouse to be sort of removed from everyday society. You might carry on business there, drink coffee, chocolate, or tea. You've probably read Boswell's diary, in which he talks about going with Dr. Johnson to the coffeehouse, and he says he prefers the food in the London coffeehouse.

Lloyd: I should think if you're going to do business, coffee, tea and chocolate would be safer beverages than scotch and whatever passed for the local libation. I mean.

Ed: I'm sure that's true, although alcohol's greased the wheels of business for centuries as well.

Lloyd: I was interested that people would go to the coffeehouse not for a quick cup of whatever it was they were going to have, but to hang out with their elite buddies.

Ed: That's certainly the sense that you get from Farquier's characterization and from English diarists.

Lloyd: The, it was not a place where women went, if I have read it correctly.

Ed: That's right. You might think it would be more acceptable than a rowdy tavern, but in fact, it was very segregated in terms of gender – at least through people who were patrons. Women might work in a coffeehouse, but generally wouldn't go there for refreshments.

Lloyd: You know a lot about Charlton's coffeehouse, because apparently people kept a lot of records of going to the coffeehouse and what they discussed there.

Ed: There are a number of diary references, but not very explicit about which coffeehouse, and not descriptive of this one. William Byrd talks about going to the coffeehouse in his great diary, but that's an earlier coffeehouse. Much of what we know about this one comes from archaeological remains and from the fragments in the Victorian house.

The archaeology's actually very interesting in terms of artifacts. A substantial fragment of what we think is an 18th century Cherokee pipe was found, several human finger bones that seem to have been wired together to be a display as part of a display skeleton, crucibles with remains of silver and gold that suggest that some sort of testing, assaying, of gold and silver and other metals was done on the site. So even archaeologically, there's some sense of a kind of rarified activity that took place in those rooms behind the porch.

Lloyd: When will guests at Colonial Williamsburg be able to stop by and have a cup of chocolate?

Ed: Well, we intend to begin laying brick this fall, and we're already working on the frame, hewing timbers, sawing and hewing timbers of the frame and producing shingles. So we hope that the coffeehouse is essentially in place by the end of 2009.

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