Immortal Bricks and Mortar

Buildings bear silent witness to the history that happens inside them. Conservator Matt Webster makes sure structures live to tell their tales.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I'm Harmony Hunter. When the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg began in 1927, eighty-eight original buildings were purchased. Thirty-four of them were outbuildings.

My guest Matt Webster has a special job when it comes to these outbuildings. Tell us what you do here, Matt.

Matt Webster: I'm the Director of Historic Architectural Resources for the Foundation. Basically the responsibility that I have it to make sure the work that's done on these buildings is done properly and that the buildings are preserved for future generations.

Harmony: And we're sitting together outside this morning in the hustle and bustle of the Historic Area in front of one of the buildings that you have recently stabilized. Describe this building for us and tell us what you had to do for it.

Matt: This is the George Reid smokehouse. This building had a few problems when we started. It sat very close to the ground. The sills, which are the lowest wooden structural element of the building, had failed. The building was tilting and had to have some extensive repairs, actually replacement of those sills.

We had to jack the building up, take the old sills out&ndashwhich are from actually an earlier repair campaign&ndashrebuild the foundations, put new sills in, attach the framing to those sills, and then just do general repairs to the rest of the building.

Harmony: Now this is a tiny white building, how big is the footprint of it?

Matt: It's 8x8 feet.

Harmony: Eight feet by eight feet, a little wooden white painted building. We've called this a smokehouse. How do you know a smokehouse when you see one?

Matt: There are structural elements and there's information that you can see inside. The big indicator is the soot that you see inside on the framing and then basically when you look at how the framing is arranged inside the building you can tell.

Harmony: This is a building where a family would have smoked their hams in the fall. Smoking was a preservation process that allowed them to eat through the winter. So you're saying you see the smoke and the creosote inside on the beams, that's a dead giveaway of what happened in there.

Matt: Yes.

Harmony: Now, you have another site where you're working on stabilizing two more outbuildings behind the Grizzell-Hay house on Nicholson Street. Tell me what's happening there and what you're looking at, what you're up against with those buildings?

Matt: Those buildings, we have a smokehouse and a privy at that location, and it's almost the same situation. But the difference is that in the case of the privy, it's used for a different purpose. So the framing is a little bit different, we have to develop new ways to lift that building up. It has the same problem with the sills. It's too close to the ground, so the framing can rot very easily and insects can get in and eat away at the wood as well.

And so we have to jack that building up, replace those sills, and stabilize it very similar to what we did here at the George Reid smokehouse. With the smokehouse at the Grizzell-Hay property, we just have some basic repairs. We have some siding that needs to be repaired as well as some framing. And basically what that is, is just it's the impact of time on the structure, just normal failures that we see with old buildings.

Harmony: We've said that these are some of Williamsburg's original buildings. What is your goal when you work on these buildings?

Matt: Well, my goal when we work on these buildings is to preserve as much original material as possible, and also to do proper repairs. We don't want to change the look of the building or the function of the building, and a lot of times that means using period-appropriate building techniques and materials.

Here at George Reid we had to compromise a little bit, we had to use more modern materials to preserve the original materials. So there's always a give and take to these projects and you just have to have to figure that out as you go along.

Harmony: Do you think that your approach today is different from the approach that was taken maybe in the first stages of the restoration in the '30s and '40s?

Matt: Our approach today is definitely much different. You know, saying that, the approach in 10 years of another generation of preservations is going to be different than what we do. As technology evolves and different techniques evolve, we change our approaches and how we work on these buildings.

Harmony: Today we almost cherish these buildings and we want to stabilize them, and we want to make sure that they remain part of the life of the house that they're attached to. How is outr attitude today different than the 18th century attitude towards these little buildings?

Matt: Today we see them as, I don't know, well I guess we still see them as support structures. But in the 18th century they were they were necessities, where today we see them kind of through an aesthetic lens.

In the 18th century these buildings would be necessary for life. They allowed the site to function properly, the smokehouse providing preserved food, the privy a bathroom, the dairy where all of their dairy products were stored, lumberhouses where they store materials for building or just for daily work.

So it's part of the function of the site and that's why these buildings are so important, because they continue the story. It's not just about the person's house, it's about how they lived. The buildings tell us how they lived, what went on these properties.

Harmony: Choosing materials to restore these buildings is an important part of what you do and I think there probably been a couple times on recent projects where you've had to correct or kind of rethink a repair that might have been done in the past. And I'm thinking specifically about roofing shingles. Can you talk about that?

Matt: Sure. The roofing shingles during the restoration we actually went with, Colonial Williamsburg went with a composite material, it's basically a concrete shingle. What that did is, it provided a much longer life for the shingle. It became, it was about sustainability. And in doing that they really helped protect these houses. By putting wooden shingles on every building, inevitably you're going to have leaks which threatens the building.

However, with these small outbuildings the framing just wasn't bulky enough to hold these shingles and the weight of them so what we're doing now is we're actually taking those concrete shingles off and putting wooden shingles back on.

Harmony: What do you look for today in things like paint, wood, shingles, nails &ndash all the materials that you would use to repair one of these buildings? What are your criteria now?

Matt: Our criteria for the materials, first and foremost, is what's the impact on the structure? Is it going to damage the structure? Is it going to be compatible with all the other materials in the building?

And just as important is, is that going to change the look of the building? We don't want modern nails in siding, we don't want modern tool marks on siding or on framing. We want to have that the look of the 18th century because all those little details come together to give you the story of the building.

Harmony: A lot of these buildings are not open as public exhibition buildings, so when you unlock a padlock and step into one of these small buildings, you must find a surprising range of things inside. What kinds of the things do you find inside these buildings now?

Matt: Well, a lot of these little outbuildings, they're used as storage for the residents. So in the case of the George Reid smokehouse, a cat lives in the building and it's a great story. There's a cat door that's been in this little outbuilding for a very, very long time. So there you see this story kind of continuing through multiple generations here at the George Reid site.

And sometimes you find trades, here in Colonial Williamsburg will store their materials. So the use of an outbuilding sometimes here at Colonial Williamsburg doesn't change all that much from the 18th century. So it is kind of interesting to see.

Harmony: Have you ever walked into an outbuilding and been surprised by what you've found there?

Matt: I'm always surprised in different ways when I go into any of the buildings here at Colonial Williamsburg. They all tell us a story, whether reconstructed or original, and all the people that lived here. So they give us that that kind of backstory here at Colonial Williamsburg.

The other thing just with working on the buildings you're always surprised at what's caused failure, or how a building has survived the way that it has. And then construction details, all these outbuildings you're going to get different people working on them, different people repairing them, so to see the repair techniques or the original construction techniques is always is always interesting as well.

Harmony: You're part of a continuum of conservation that happens on these buildings, one that started in 1927 and one that hopefully will be alive 50, 100 years from now. What do you hope that people will find from your work 100 years from now?

Matt: Well, the ultimate goal for me is to make sure that these buildings survive and that they survive really well. I hope that what they'll find is that we did the best job that we could and did the least damage possible. That's really our goal: preserve the building for the future and do as little damage as possible.

Harmony: Matt, thank you so much for being out here with us in the beautiful Historic Area this morning.

Matt: Thank you.


  1. Over 100 umms. Better to read the transcript on this one. Otherwise very interesting.

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