Resurrecting an Alehouse

Chowning’s Tavern is reborn as an alehouse: a rough-and-rugged sanctuary for the colonial man in search of an ale. Listen as curator Amanda Keller and Director Department of Architectural Preservation Matt Webster describe the choices they made to re-open the doors to a more authentic past.

Learn more: Chowning's Tavern


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. One of the fixtures in the Historic Area is our historic taverns. There are a handful of them. And one of them, which we will be pronouncing today as “Chewning’s” but if you see it the Historic Area, it will look like it’s spelled “Chowning’s.” But Chowning’s Tavern is getting, I don’t know whether to call it a makeover or a make-under, but it has been reinterpreted with some new information that allows us to make it more accurate and also incorporates some of our offerings from Historic Foodways.

So this is an exciting update. Our guests today are Matt Webster and Amanda Keller, both of whom have been guests with us before, and they’re here to talk about how they worked as part of a team to re-enliven Chowning’s Tavern, and bring some new accuracy and some new aspects to it. So both of you, thanks for being here today!

Matt Webster: It’s great to be here.

Harmony: Well, where should we start? I don’t want to call it a re-imagining, but we’re sort of reinterpreting with some new information. Who would have been point on the project to open the doors again with something that’s a little bit more accurate to what we now know about the 18th century?

Matt: Well it was very much a team effort. We worked very closely with the staff at Chowning’s on this project trying to bring it, really develop an 18th-century look in the tavern, which it hasn’t had before. A lot of what we were seeing in that tavern was from the Colonial Revival period and interpretation of the 18th century, but we have a lot more information today.

Harmony: Talk to us about Colonial Revival. This is a concept we’ve explored before on this show. But what was the Colonial Revival in Colonial Williamsburg, and how did that influence some of the very first interpretations that we were doing?

Matt: So the Colonial Revival is really an interpretation of the 18th century taking information that they saw and putting it into buildings. So it’s really kind of the beginning of research on the period that we interpret, and so with that, they weren’t really armed with all of the information that we have today. In the 1920s, '30s, '40s.... we now have 70-80 years of information where they were really at the forefront of this. So it was the initial information and how it was interpreted. Now, today, we can bring all of the build-up of documentation on what 18th-century buildings look like, as well as science. Science plays a huge role in what we know about the 18th century today. So all of those things were brought to bear on this project.

Harmony: So this isn’t just a makeover. We’re actually able to add some layers of authenticity to that structure so that everything you’re looking at becomes a historic document.

Matt: Right. Right, so it’s from the paint colors in the buildings. In the past, we had a lot of wood that was exposed but it’d been stained and varnished, something you just don’t see in the 18th century. There are certain surfaces you might see it on but definitely not in a building of this type. What we have to tell us that is paint analysis.

So in the Colonial Revival period, they were scratching down layer by layer through paint build up. Then they would match the lowest layer. Well, it doesn’t take into consideration what a primer coat was, what the finish coat was originally, what the pigments and oils do over time. So they’re getting completely different colors, in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, and even into the 1980s.

Where today, we take a microscopic sample and look at it under a microscope, and we can tell the pigments and the binders, and we can reverse engineer that coloring to be what it was in the 18th century. So for instance, if an interior is blue in the 18th century, it means it’s going to a vibrant blue. But if you just see it on a bare piece of wood today, it’s green or gray.

Harmony: Because it would have faded.

Matt: Because it faded, and the pigments break down. So we know a lot more today, and that’s what’s influencing really color throughout the Historic Area and what we know about Chowning’s because we have hundreds of paint reports, not only from our original buildings here in Williamsburg but from through out the Chesapeake region, and really the 18th-century buildings along the east coast. So we get this nice mix of building uses and colors that were used on them that we can then compare to what’s here in Williamsburg in our reconstructed buildings to get better interpretation.

Harmony: It’s so much fun to me, because it means that history is not a closed book. We keep learning, and we’re able to keep applying what we’re learning to become even more true to the past. Amanda, talk to us a little bit about the furnishings. I don’t know if it’s fair to call them props, but the dressing of the inside of a building. Because that’s your job to make sure that the objects and the artifacts that you see inside these buildings are as true as they can be to the season, to the class, to the use, to the local materials available. Tell us a little bit about your work in making sure that the interior of Chowning’s reflected what a tavern or alehouse would have looked like then according to the best of what we know today.

Amanda Keller: It was a really fun project to get to kind of get my hands on one of the taverns. We typically don’t get to furnish the historic taverns. So we looked at probate inventories what typically, what kind of objects would have been found in a tavern. We looked at a lot of print sources, 18th century prints, mostly English prints, just to kind of get a feel of what types of objects would be found on the walls. We couldn’t put a lot of props throughout the whole tavern just because we were worried about them moving around or getting in the way of the servers. So we really had to focus on what we could put on the walls, secure down, so that people could really kind of get a sense of what a tavern would have looked like.

We really had a good time. We actually had special walking sticks made for the walls and hats. We had new prints installed through the tavern, in both, the whole downstairs basically. Then we also had different advertisements made so that we could paste them up on the walls to kind of create that sense of use in the tavern, what they would have done. We had muskets made, we had swords put up on the wall above the fireplaces. That was just kind of fun to get to add a little bit more life to the tavern.

Harmony: I want to go back to something you said. You looked at probate inventories and prints. So let’s talk briefly about what those things are for folks that might not be familiar with the idea of a probate inventory, because this is a goldmine of objects. So tell us a little bit about a probate inventory and how that played into your work.

Amanda: Probates are really great. When somebody passes away typically, two or three probate officers would kind of show up from the county and go through each room and list what was in each space and give it a value so they could value the estate. So it’s really helpful to be able to look at those documents, figure out what was deemed valuable enough to list in each room. Then figuring out a hierarchy of spaces, you can then figure out, ok which were the best rooms in the tavern. What kinds of objects were associated with a higher status.

So Wetherburn’s inventory is probably one of my favorite ones to look at because there’s a lot of stuff listed. It really goes very nicely, room by room. You kind of completely understand how it was furnished and how each room was used. Everything from the great room where large parties would have been held, to the Bull’s Head room, which was more of a private space. So that one’s really helpful. So I tried to kind of look at different inventories from the 18th century for taverns and kind of impart what we see generally, and then put it in Chowning’s.

Harmony: And then you mentioned prints. These are pictures, drawings, images. So somebody might have drawn a picture and printed images of people in a tavern, so if you look really closely at those pictures and you pick out those little details.

Amanda: Yes, exactly. Looking at print sources, we looked at wall art, specifically, what kinds of images did they hang in taverns? And I got to work with Kate Teiken on figuring out exactly -- and she’s one of our prints curators -- what would have been on the walls. And we figured out from looking at the print sources, like a lot of boxing scenes, a lot of male-oriented things they would have enjoyed looking at. So boxing, we saw a lot of dog images, a lot of sportsman type of things, horses, a lot of equestrian prints. So it was really kind of fun. And we got to put some of those things in Chowning’s.

Harmony: You talked about walking sticks and muskets. Why were some of those objects chosen?

Amanda: Well from looking at the print sources, we did see a lot of muskets hanging above fireplaces, and we saw swords just decoratively hung typically.

Harmony: So it wasn’t like you come in the door and put down your sword and get a table?

Amanda: And a lot of people joke about that actually. They go, “Why are there so many weapons in this tavern?” And I’m like, “Well I guess after the drinking, they could also fight.” No, they’re typically just mounted to the wall just for sort of decor. We see them sometimes in the prints being covered and protected. That made sure it didn’t get dusty or that the metal didn’t tarnish, or things like that, or flies didn’t land on the metal.

We also see a lot of maps, so we put in a lot of maps as well. We typically showed a map, then above that, the muskets hanging. The blacksmiths did a lot of work for us. They helped us put the muskets together, they helped us make hardware to actually hang these really long heavy muskets on the wall. And they also made us hardware to hang the swords. So it was really a team effort with Historic Trades, too. They jumped in a lot.

Harmony: This is a really nice aspect to this project is that we’re using all of the best historic resources we have to make this accurate. But we’re also leaning on our own Historic Trades to manufacture some of the items that we see in an authentic 18th century way. Matt, tell us a little bit of the story of how this came to involve so many of our own historic trades to really bring history back.

Matt: Well, you know one of the things that’s incredible about Colonial Williamsburg is its Historic Trades. And they produce a lot of things that we simply can’t get on the market any longer. So we need to be accurate, to give that feel and give all the details that really create the whole scene. We lean on them to help us produce these objects.

The tin shop, for instance, made all the sconces people see in the tavern today. They did that, they’ve done incredible work researching what these would have looked like in the 18th century, reproducing them. Then our maintenance crews come in, wire and hang everything accurately. And everything, right down to the chandelier is now painted green in the tavern, so the tinsmiths wanted to know what some of the coatings, sometimes you just have bare tin which is very reflective. In some instances, you actually have the lanterns or chandeliers actually being painted. So they engage with our paint analysts in the conservation department to look at some of the 18th century and early 19th century tin work. They came up with the colors, so that’s why it’s painted green, is that that’s what we were seeing one of the colors that are very popular for tinwork.

Harmony: In your research, what did you learn about the Ale House?  Was it a rough-and-tumble kind of bar? Was this a formal kind of men’s club? What is the character of the space?

Amanda: It’s much more, I guess, middle of the road. It’s not really high end, I wouldn’t say. We kind of tried to represent sort of like the “everyman’s kind of tavern.” We also did that through archaeology. We also brought in our archaeologist, Kelly Ladd-Kostro, and she was really great. We built this cabinet in the center hall right when you walk in the passage, and she put some really great artifacts mounted inside the cabinet with some illustrations about what tavern life was like and the different types of beverages that would have drank. So you could just see original wine glass fragments, original wine bottles, and things like that. We kind of tried to show what a tavern in general would have, how it would have operated, who would have been there, and that kind of thing.

Harmony: Socially, tell me who would have been there. Would women have been there? Would African-Americans have been there?

Amanda: Yes, I don’t think women as much frequented taverns. It would be mostly men. And definitely African-Americans, definitely slaves worked in taverns. We see that in a lot of different probate inventories, Wetherburn’s just being one of the many. So typically they would be doing the cooking, the cleaning, washing linens and things like that. Lots of taverns would have offered staying overnight and things like that, so definitely a lot of laundry. Again, Wetherburn’s is such a great example cause it’s kind of right across the street. We have a laundry there, we have a dairy, a huge operation, a huge kitchen. So we can’t show all of that at Chowning’s, but it’s good to be able to compare to other taverns in the Historic Area, different types of activities that would have went on to run.

Harmony: So Matt, this has been one of many projects that you’ve worked on in the Historic Area to bring a new layer of authenticity to it, what’s stood out as special to you about the Chowning’s project?

Matt: When I look at Chowning’s now, it feels like an 18th-century tavern should feel. It’s not just the color changes. It’s all these little details that come together to really make it flow. There’s nothing when you go in that’s jarring. For someone who really understands the 18th century and what these buildings look like, there’s nothing jarring that sits there and says, “This is wrong.” Everything from we faked the sheathing boards came down in a partition wall. When we did that, we took all the varnish off the wood. We made it look like all the studs were hand cut, and we even punched holes to make it look like the nails had been pulled. So it’s all these remarkable details right down from what Amanda’s done with the different prints and bottles and walking sticks down to just the nail holes. It’s all of that that combines to give the visual that we want the visitors to see and combines to tell the story. That’s my favorite part.

Harmony: Let me put the same question to you, Amanda. What has stood out about this project for you?

Amanda: I think my favorite aspects besides getting to work with so many different divisions and people would be making the walking sticks. We had a really fun time doing that and I kind of relied a lot on our conservators to help me with that. We have some really nice volunteers in our furniture lab and they made us reproduction walking sticks. They actually had to carve the wood, make it look exactly like the ones that we have, the antique ones in the collection.

We also had the foundry make the heads, the tops of the walking sticks. Then Eric Goldstein, our Mechanical Arts Curator, made all of the tips for the walking sticks. Then our upholstery conservator, Leroy Graves, made all of the tassels. It was really just a fun thing to get to work with so many people to make, literally, three walking sticks. But it took a lot of time and effort.

Harmony: Don’t you just want to go see this building right now? I hope that our listeners get a chance to go by, have a beer, and just soak in these surroundings and really enjoy the space and kind of put yourself in the footsteps of somebody grabbing a beer on the way home in 18th century Williamsburg. It really helps you to understand the past in such a really relatable way. Thank you both for being here, and thanks for you work in making Chowning’s a little bit more authentic.

Matt and Amanda: Thank you.