Hidden Williamsburg

The backyards of Williamsburg’s finest homes tell the story of a separate society. Author Mike Olmert reads the architecture of outbuildings.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter.

This week finds us out in the Historic Area behind some of Williamsburg’s handsomest buildings to find the places where the 18th century did its dirty work. Mike Olmert is here with me behind the Grissell-Hay lodging house on Nicholson Street and we’re looking at three funny little buildings. Mike, can you tell us what we’re seeing?

Mike Olmert: Well, first of all just looking at them, these little buildings put me in a good frame of mind. I mean they don’t seem to take themselves seriously. They’re small, they’re sensible, they’re environmentally sound, and they did a good job for a long time. They made sense of the backyard. This is where the work got done. This is where the work of the 18th century got done.

Harmony: We’re looking at three small, little buildings now. None of them has bigger than, I’d guess, a 10 x 10 footprint. But they’re distinct in their features, and the construction of each tells us what they are. Tell us what we’re looking at and how you know.

Mike: There are some diagnostic clues when you look at outbuildings. If you see a building and it has a roof that looks like a pyramid, that’s almost certainly going to be a smokehouse. And the pyramid is useful because it has a large air space above there and it traps heat, and there’s lots of room up there for pieces of wood, collar beams and nails and hooks that you can hang meat on.

A smokehouse was a place where you, every December you would kill your pigs and the meat would be dried in there over three weeks in the smokehouse and a fire had to be kept in there. The other diagnostic thing, you will never see a flue for the fireplace in a smokehouse because you don’t want the smoke to go away, you want it to stay in the house.

Harmony: We’re also looking at an outhouse, a privy.

Mike: The privy usually has a gable end roof, you just want to keep the water out and it’s going to have usually one door. Oddly in the Grissell-Hay backyard, it has two doors.

Harmony: It’s like a skinny door and wide a door.

Mike: Yes, it’s very, very odd and we don’t know when that happened. The building dates probably from the very, very latest part of the 18th century and maybe into the 19th century. But most privies just had one door and sometimes three or four seats inside.

All the inside of that privy has been changed so we don’t know how many seats and how many people were using it at once. But with two doors it probably, when it was originally put together, it was probably a partition in there and two separate sections or maybe one part was a store room, that was one door and the other part for a privy.

Harmony: Not all 18th century privies were designed to have pits dug underneath them, right? So the other thing you could look for was the little door low down in the back which was the little clean out drawer.

Mike: The clean out door. George Washington had actually drawers, you could pull out the drawers and take the waste away and it was used as fertilizer actually.

Harmony: And for a few other things, right?

Mike: The urine was used as an industrial solvent, it had lots of uses but mainly in tanneries. That’s why in Williamsburg there’s a street called Tannery Lane. There’s no evidence of the tannery being there except for the street name but you see it’s out, it’s away from Duke of Gloucester Street because that was a very stinky place. Not just for the horses that were being skinned and all that and the offal that comes from that but the industrial solvents.

Harmony: The third and the largest building we’re seeing here is the diary, and it definitely has a distinctive appearance. It has sort of louvered slats around the top quarter of the building just under the roof. Tell me about that.

Mike: Well, Virginia was a very warm and hot climate, so you had to have constant ventilation going through there. And it looks like bugs would get in that too but we know that there was a kind of gauze that was put over the louvers in the buggy months to stop bugs getting in there. Because if a bug gets in a in a bowl of milk and cream that’s rising, it’s ruined, and it all has to be thrown out. You cannot have the slightest bit of dirt in any milk or cheese product will ruin it. So these were the cleanest bits of Williamsburg.

That raises some other diagnostic things about the dairy buildings that other buildings don’t have. For instance, we open the door here and you see it goes down three feet below grade and if you go in the ground, if you go down eight to ten feet, it’s a constant 54 degrees. So you get a real thermal drop from just making that building go down.

Harmony: I love the technology of these two little buildings. In a time before we had electricity and refrigeration and ovens, they still are managing to prepare and preserve two kinds of foods that we think of as pretty temperamental in the kitchen. In the dairy they’re using this geothermal technique and venting to keep it cool and shady.

And in the smokehouse as well, there’s a whole set of technology around preserving. It’s really a matter of life or death – if you’re going to survive through the winter you’ve got to have this food source.

Mike: Yeah, you kill your pigs in December and they’ll be in there for the rest of the year. They’ll be hanging, they’ll be slowly taking that down. You can’t kill them any other time of the year because they’ll get too rotten, it’s got to be cold. Usually in Williamsburg in this part of Virginia the killing takes place the first or second week in December and then you put the cuts of meat in these tubs with salt and that drives the water out.

Harmony: And up here in the rafters we see all kinds of little hooks and spots where I guess hams would have been hug.

Mike: Yes, and that that raises a schizophrenic nature about the smokehouses. They have to be well made so that insects and mice and things like that don’t get inside and attack the meat. But they also have to be open to have a slight a bit of ventilation because you need air in there because after the meat is dried and hung and you’d light the fires, the fires have to be kept going for three weeks.

Most of the people I’ve talked to that are still living and were living when smoking was still done in these houses, they said that they would light the fires in the morning and the fires would go all day long. Now if the smokehouse is made too well, that is to say it doesn’t have little slits for air to get in and out, the fire will go out it’ll be like you’re shutting the doors on your furnace. The fire will go out. So you’ve got to have this balance of a little bit of a little bit of openness and cracks in the wood so that air can get in. It’s got to be ventilated, but not too much.

Harmony: Now, bugs getting in is not the only kind of intruder you have to worry about. This has got a pretty hefty padlock on it. I imagine that this is one of your most valuable possessions. You’ve got to worry about burglars.

Mike: Yes, you do. And so it has to be a well-made sturdy house with a really good door, often a plank door, and that’s another diagnostic thing. These buildings have characteristics and personalities and you can see it from a mile away and you can see it from two centuries away.

Harmony: The smoke really leaves its mark in here. In between the whitewash you can see evidence of kind of black sooty residue.

Mike: Yeah, that’s called creosote. It really, in the same way that the heat drives water out of the meat, it drives the water out of the wood too, and that makes it very friable and the creosote gets in there. And if you take your finger you can, it’s very spongy and soft. You could liken it to a Nerf ball. But deep down the wood is still very competent.

Harmony: Now behind the Governor’s Palace there’s a brick smokehouse.

Mike: Well, that that’s a very elite place. I mean, that was to represent the King of England and he’s not going to have vernacular buildings. He’s going to put a lot of money into it. Look, the whole Governor’s Palace, the whole point of it is – and it’s the whole point of all architectural history – architecture is the presentation of self. “Look at look at where I live and then and then decide who I am.”

This building was meant to represent the power of England so that, say, Native Americans coming down out of the Appalachians would walk into Williamsburg and look at this building and say, “Oh my goodness, it’s possible we shouldn’t mess with these people, if they can build something like that here they’re powerful.” It’s presentation of self and in this case it’s not a “self” person it’s a “self” society represented by the king. So he’s going to have brick outbuildings.

Harmony: What is the effect of the salt and smoke on brick? Is there any difference?

Mike: Yes, apparently that salt but not the smoke will get into the brick and it’ll begin to degrade too. And at Williamsburg there was a terrible problem with the Powell house. Now Powell was just an ordinary citizen but he was a builder and he has very high-style brick. He has a brick dairy and a brick smokehouse because he was showing off his wares.

He wanted people to come to his yard and say, “This is what I can do for you. Don’t you, wouldn’t you like to have a brick house?” And he makes more money on that. You know, he was an entrepreneur. So those buildings are still there, and they were used well into the 19th century.

A lot of the bricks, they look like they’re soft and as non-competent as sugar cubes. And they’re very rounded and they’re falling apart. But a very clever man working at Williamsburg about twenty years ago decided to use toilet paper, and he made a poultice of 700 rolls of toilet paper and pushed it up against the bricks. The toilet paper was all mushy and wet – he got it wet – he smashed that up against the bricks and that extracted the salt out. It took him 700 rolls of toilet paper to get the salt out of the building.

Harmony: And why toilet paper?

Mike: Well it was just a really soft paper that would hold a lot of water and it would dry quickly and extract, extract the salt out.

Harmony: If architecture is the presentation of self and we’re looking at the architecture of three small buildings together here, what do you see being presented in this in this trio of buildings?

Mike: This was a society that knew they were certain jobs that had to be done and there was a place to do them. And they built well-built buildings that were going to last a long time and look good the while time. There was a standard look for a smokehouse, there was a standard look for a dairy, there was a standard look for a privy.

Everybody knew what to expect out of this this society. It was just, they were checking boxes and that was that was what they were comfortable with. There was a right thing to do, the right way to do things, it’s called tradition.

Harmony: Mike, thank you so much for being here with us today and talking about these buildings.

Mike: It’s my pleasure.

Harmony: To learn more about Williamsburg’s outbuildings, look for Mike Olmert’s book, “Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies” in Williamsburg bookstores and online.

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