By Mark St. John Erickson, The Daily Press

Willimansburg, VA (AP) – Nearly 85 years after it opened in 1932 as Colonial Williamsburg’s first exhibition building, the reconstructed Raleigh Tavern ranks as one of the Historic Area’s most widely recognized landmarks.

Few sites have witnessed more history than the famed 18th century hostelry, where such patriots as George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson met to show their defiance of the Townshend Acts in 1769, then gathered again in 1773 and `74 for two more milestone steps on their road to revolution.

Reconstructed with the aid of two mid-1800s drawings, the long, wood-frame structure not only stands out for its arresting embrace of colonial design but also its iconic lead bust of the tavern’s namesake – Sir Walter Raleigh – which catches the eyes of hundreds of thousands of visitors each year as it looks out over busy Duke of Gloucester Street from its perch above the front door.

Despite the celebrated structure’s timeless appearance, however, it could be headed for a transformative change if the archaeologists probing deep beneath its brick sidewalk can ferret out the answers to an 88-year-old puzzle.

Retracing the footsteps of a 1928 dig, they’re looking for physical evidence of a front porch mentioned by several period sources – and likely shown on a map drawn by a French army engineer in 1782.

But the jury’s still out as to whether they’ll find the clues that eluded the previous investigation – and which could prove crucial to designing a porch that will significantly alter the milestone reconstruction.

“We always say we’re standing on the shoulders of the archaeologists who came before us. They were the pioneers,’’ said CW archaeologist Mark Kostro, who is leading the joint CW and College of William and Mary summer field school in a dig expected to extend into the fall.

“But we have the benefit of more than 75 years of experience to draw upon. We have new methods and new technologies. And that will enable us to examine even old evidence with fresh eyes.’’

Missing feature

Established in 1717, the tavern grew in stages, expanding from an original two-room structure east along the street and then adding several rear additions, CW architectural historian Mark S. Wenger noted in a 1989 report.

But evidence of a porch is scant and uncertain.

Two late-1700s references mention the feature, including a notice for an estate auction and a handyman’s bill for repairs.

Then there’s the 1782 map, which shows the tavern incorporating some sort of street-front element just like those shown on other buildings known to have had porches.

Historian Benson Lossing drew the front faÁade and Apollo Room in 1848, providing crucial guides for the pioneering reconstruction that opened in 1932, Kostro said.

But by the time he arrived during a tour of Revolutionary War sites, the porch was gone and didn’t show up in his picture.

“He was a day or two late,’’ Kostro said, “and by then the porch had been removed.’’

Eighty years after Lossing’s visit, the tavern itself was long gone – the victim of an 1859 fire.

And when the first CW archaeologists began probing beneath the remains of two modern structures in 1928, they were unable to draw firm conclusions from the evidence that remained, leading to a reconstruction that had no front porch.

“The practice of the day was to go with the strongest evidence they had – and the Lossing drawing was the gold standard as far as these early reconstructions were concerned,’’ Kostro said.

“So they went without the porch.’’

New thinking

Despite the notable exception of the full-width front porch at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, several other prominent Historic Area taverns were reconstructed or restored without their original porches, including the King’s Arms, Shields and Wetherburn’s, CW architectural historian Willie Graham says.

Though their absence goes unnoticed by most visitors walking along Duke of Gloucester Street now, they would have made stand-out architectural statements in the late 1700s.

“Porches are really a rarity in the 18th century. They tend to be post-Revolutionary War features,’’ he said.

“So it would have been dramatically different then – not just architecturally but socially. People would sit out on these big porches and interact with anyone who passed by.’’

That’s one reason CW historians have been looking for ways to restore that lost feature since the late 1980s, when they restudied the reconstruction at Shields Tavern.

Additional impetus came from the introduction of the Revolutionary City street theater program in 2006, which prompted architectural historians to start thinking about the potential of the missing porches as stagesRaleighTavernElevation for the performances, Graham said.

At the reconstructed Charlton Coffeehouse, which opened in 2009, the front porch played a conspicuous role in a real-life drama when dozens of residents protesting the Stamp Act assembled there on Oct. 30, 1765, to threaten the life of the crown’s agent.

Only the intervention of the popular Lt. Gov. Francis Fauquier, who was seated on the porch, prevented the crowd from carrying out their threats of violence.

“Reconstructing these porches would provide a more historical platform for these performances than the stages we’ve built in the street,’’ Graham says, “and they’d restore an important architectural and social feature that has been missing.’’
Potential answers

Still, even with funding from CW Trustee Cynthia H. Milligan and her husband, Robert, any reconstruction will depend on extracting as much new archaeological information as possible, then combining it with what has been learned from surviving colonial-era structures during the nearly 85 years since the tavern opened.

“We know the vocabulary they used for these porches. We know the detailing from pieces of early porches that survive. We know there has to be some place at the front of the porch to put Raleigh’s bust, the original base of which survives. So we already have some pretty good clues about what it would have looked like,’’ he said.

“We just need to tease out the answers to a few more questions.’’

Several likely sources of new information have already been identified, however, with the discovery of numerous intact 18th century deposits left undisturbed by the 1928 dig.

There, Kostro and his students hope to find valuable clues – including old paint fragments and artifacts – that unlock the secrets of the lost porch and its long-untold story.

“I’m very encouraged by the level of preservation we’re finding here,’’ he said.

“And I think we should feel pretty confident – after all these years – of not only learning more about how the porch looked but also how it was used.’’

Photos: Raleigh Tavern; The Raleigh Tavern dig site in the late 1920s, prior to its full restoration