A Tale of Two Jamestowns

There are two Jamestowns in Virginia—the real one, Historic Jamestowne, maintained by the National Park Service and Colonial Williamsburg, and the completely rebuilt tourist attraction called Jamestown Settlement.  Now, I haven’t actually been to the rebuilt Jamestown, so perhaps I am biased. While I have nothing against rebuilt structures (look how well Colonial Williamsburg turned out!), originals are infinitely cooler.

Most Americans are familiar with Jamestown, even if it’s through Disney’s slightly twisted Pocahontas or the evidence of cannibalism that has recently appeared in the news. Jamestown was settled in May 1607 by England’s Virginia Company, led by John Smith. Shortly thereafter it became the capital of the colony.

Brick restoration project, Adventures in Preservation field trip to Jamestowne

At the top of the tower Matt Webster explains problems with the roof while a worker places a metal cap on completed sections of wall to prevent moisture from getting to the wall’s core. Photo: Hallie Borstel

There isn’t actually much of the real settlement left, but what is still there is currently undergoing preservation work. The Jamestown Tower has been standing since 1639, much longer than the church behind it, and was part of the fourth church built on the site. During the AiP workshop with the Fairfield Foundation, we were given a special tour of the restoration project by Ray Cannetti of bricklaying fame and Matt Webster, director of historic architectural resources at Colonial Williamsburg. This included climbing the scaffolding while wearing hard hats (and at least one Fairfield Foundation attendee thought this was a good time to FaceTime his friends).

Jamestown Virginia site

View of Historic Jamestowne from the top of the tower. Photo: Hallie Borstel

From the scaffolding we not only got a unique bird’s-eye view of the area, we also learned about the mysterious first roof (no one is quite sure how it fit into the structure), the similarly mysterious arch (a window, perhaps), why there are bricks missing in some places (wood pieces would’ve been inserted in the gaps as part of the original scaffolding), how early brick masons checked that their rows were level (using nails and string; some nail holes are still visible), and that 17th-century brick masonry techniques were basically much more effective than techniques developed in the late 1800s.

The cement that was used for repairs on the tower between the late 1800s and mid 1900s was Portland cement, which is still popular. The use of the cement at Jamestown caused more moisture to seep into the bricks than the lime mortar would have allowed.  While lime mortar slowly releases any moisture that has gathered in the structure, cement in holds moisture, causing damage.

Mortar investigations at Adventures in Preservation field trip to Jamestowne, VA

Mortar made with chicken scratch in attempt to make mortar look old. Photo: Hallie Borstel

Many restoration projects, some parts of the Jamestown Tower included, actually work to correct previous attempts at restoration rather than repair the original damage itself.  Early historic preservationists didn’t always get it right. At one point in time, probably sometime in the 1800s, one preservationist tried to make mortar that looked like it came from the 1600s using chicken scratch instead of using a lime mortar made with burned oyster shells. It might fool an amateur, but not a true brick-and-mortar expert!

Learn More
Matt Webster discusses the tower restoration project: video from the Daily Press (Gloucester)

— Hallie Borstel

About Adventures in Preservation

Huge fans of the world's architectural heritage, making it a point to seek out historic buildings wherever we travel. Bloggers include co-founder of Adventures in Preservation, a non-profit organizing historic preservation-based volunteer vacations, and AiP interns.
This entry was posted in AiP Projects, Building Conservation, Experiential Travel, Heritage Travel, Historic Preservation, Historic Sites and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Tale of Two Jamestowns

  1. Pingback: Austria Update #1 | The Wordy Baker

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