At Colonial Williamsburg, a rebuilt coffeehouse reflects new ways of teaching history

A ROLE IN HISTORY: The modest parlor room of R. Charlton's Coffeehouse, which opens to the public Friday.
A ROLE IN HISTORY: The modest parlor room of R. Charlton's Coffeehouse, which opens to the public Friday. (Photos By Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
By Philip Kennicott
Thursday, November 19, 2009

WILLIAMSBURG -- It's been more than 50 years since Colonial Williamsburg reconstructed a major 18th-century building on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt once called "the most historic avenue in America." Duke of Gloucester Street, flanked on one end by the late 17th-century "Wren building" of the College of William and Mary, and on the other by the reconstructed Virginia Capitol building, is the spine and soul of Colonial Williamsburg, a historic attraction that is part fantasy, part relic and, for hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, the defining vision of what Revolutionary-era America looked like.

Now it is home to the modest Charlton's Coffeehouse, built from scratch on historic foundations and billed as the only 18th-century coffeehouse in America. It opens to the public Friday.

The $5 million project debuts decades after the Colonial Revival era of the first reconstructions at Williamsburg, when museum professionals and the public were less fastidious about the authenticity of reconstructions. And it benefits from the methodical archaeology and forensics that make reconstructions today more reliable than the mix of research and whimsy used during the first era of rebuilding Williamsburg in the 1920s and '30s.

But the real importance of this unprepossessing little structure isn't so much what it adds to the atmosphere of Duke of Gloucester Street as what it says about how history is presented in the age of iPhones and Bowling Alone.

Since 1994, Williamsburg has been rethinking its basic presentation of history, moving more toward narrative and theater to capture the attention of younger audiences turned off by older teaching methods. The impact of that approach can occasionally be seen in the physical space at Williamsburg, a collection of hundreds of original and reconstructed buildings, including a courthouse that was renovated in part to serve as the site of an interactive drama that engages audiences in historical debate about laws and rights.

But Charlton's Coffeehouse is the first building to be reconstructed specifically to serve the agenda of a large-scale theater piece, "Revolutionary City," which debuted in 2006 as part of Colonial Williamsburg's long-term plan to regain relevance, recapture audiences and reinvent the telling of history in a more distracted, disengaged and uneducated era.

The thought of rebuilding Charlton's Coffeehouse goes back at least a decade. The historical record was clear: Where a large Victorian home known as the Cary Peyton Armistead House was then standing, there was once a bustling coffeehouse that played an important role during the years leading up to the American Revolution. That structure began life as a storeroom, but at some point in the 1760s a young immigrant named Richard Charlton used the building -- adjacent to the Colonial Capitol -- as a coffeehouse, serving a brew that likely would have tasted burned and bitter to the contemporary palate.

The property eventually fell into the hands of the Armistead family, who used much of the original foundation to build themselves a stylish new Victorian home -- which looked utterly out of place by the time John D. Rockefeller Jr. was funding the re-creation of Colonial-era Duke of Gloucester Street during the Great Depression. So in 1994, the Williamsburg curators moved the home, and in 1995 they began a fine-tooth archaeological comb of the site. From the evidence gathered, including materials reused from the original coffee shop in the Armistead structure, and a sole photograph showing the structure from sometime in the 1880s, they felt confident that they could resurrect the building.

"There's a lot of potential there for programming," says Jim Horn, vice president for research and historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg. On Friday there will be a sneak peek at the latest addition to the "Revolutionary City" script, a scene depicting a famous 1765 protest against the Stamp Act that happened on the steps of the coffeehouse.

"We can re-create an important event right where it took place," Horn says.

Dwindling civic life

It is fitting, perhaps, that a building that once served as a site of Colonial-era discussion and debate is the first major reconstruction of the narrative-driven era of Williamsburg. The roots of Charlton's Coffeehouse go back to the 18th century, but the roots of the reconstruction reflect deep concerns about growing social anomie over the past few decades. In museum circles, the shorthand for this is "Bowling Alone," a reference to Robert Putnam's 1995 book, which claimed that Americans were becoming increasingly disengaged from civic participation and social engagement.

Horn rattles off a litany of worries that everyone in the history business is facing: "The decline of civic awareness and school education; the decline of quality newspapers; voting every four years, or not at all . . . ." Schoolchildren, he says, are arriving at Williamsburg with very little knowledge of the basics of American history. And in the age of endless electronic blandishments, from online gaming to iPhones that can immerse you in enhanced realities, reengaging kids without a narrative and emotional component is seen as impossible.

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