In Colonial Williamsburg, Chowning's Tavern led the way

Milestone reconstruction was designed to recreate experience of a 1700s tavern

When work began on Chowning's Tavern in 1939, Colonial Williamsburg was barely a decade old — and the Historic Area was still being shaped.

Just to the west, surveyors were laying out the path of the Colonial Parkway tunnel under Market Square, and soon a giant open trench stretched across the middle of the historic landscape.

Builders also were erecting both a 48-room addition to the first Williamsburg Lodge and CW's new Godwin office building — all part of an ambitious expansion that in 1941 added more than $3 million to the $20 million that philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. had already spent.

But when it opened 75 years ago on Aug. 15, Chowning's represented not only the "redoubled determination of President Kenneth Chorley … to complete reconstruction of the one-time Virginia capital" but also a "milestone" in the long-time goal of recreating life in the 1700s.

Modeled after surviving taverns in England and Virginia, the new structure was among the first to step beyond the museumlike confines of traditional exhibit buildings and put visitors in a setting that — as the Daily Press reported — "resembled as much as research and skill can make it a tavern of the sort where planters and townspeople gathered of an evening in 18th-century Williamsburg."

"This is what was new about Chowning's. It was not a traditional exhibit building, and it was not meant to be like the Raleigh Tavern, which — like many other early exhibit buildings — was all about the gentry and the movers and shakers," CW architectural historian Jeff Klee says.

"They wanted a fuller cross-section of what life was like here in the 1700s, and Chowning's gave you a taste of what it was like for ordinary people."

Leading the way

Despite its prominence today, the 18th-century references to Chowning's are scant at best, with few surviving records, Klee says.

The archaeological evidence is fragmentary, too, with the 1939 excavations unearthing clues to the 18th-century buildings erected and often modified over the years but — possibly because of the pioneering stage of the research efforts at the time — little confirmation that they were used as a tavern.

Driving the project forward was the site's central location — and the fact that the nearest place to eat was the restaurant at the Travis House, which then was located to the west off Palace Green, Klee says.

Then there was the restoration's new interest in enlarging the visitor experience by enabling them to sit down, eat, drink and be entertained in a recreated period setting.

"This was an evolutionary process. They were still figuring what people wanted and what the Historic Area was going to be," CW Director of Architectural Preservation Matt Webster says.

"But this was one of the first steps leading to the experience we created at Charlton's Coffeehouse just a few years ago. We're doing the things we do today because of what happened here."

Careful design

The project's success depended upon veteran CW architect Singleton P. Moorehead, who had a keen interest in the modest, even commonplace, 18th-century buildings that had often been bypassed during the early days of the restoration, Klee says.

Digging out descriptions of 1700s taverns in Williamsburg and other parts of Virginia, he worked with written accounts and period illustrations of English taverns, too, assembling a vocabulary of features from which to choose in designing a reconstruction.

Moorehead also traced the changing uses of the structure over time, making the west part of the building reflect its early history as a house while the east section showed its roots as a warehouse and store.

"This is the more brushed-up side of the property," Klee says, describing the plaster, casework and detailed stairs that mark the west rooms.

"And this is the more modest side, the one that was previously used as a warehouse," he says, pointing to the front shop window and exposed ceiling joists and interior wall frames that distinguish the east section.

"What this tells us is that these buildings had a life. They didn't just pop up out of the ground. They had a history of being altered and changed."

Moorehead's final challenge was to marry his period setting with modern cooking and refrigeration, a problem he solved through "some ingenious disguising," the Daily Press noted.

"They struggled the most with the upstairs," Webster says, describing other compromises in the design.

"They knew it's not what it would've looked like back in the 18th century. But they had to balance modern needs with the historic."

Winning appeal

Few of those compromises were apparent when Chowning's opened.

Furnished with antique furniture, prints and pewterware and illuminated by candlelight, the recreated 18th-century setting so impressed British-American film actress and first-day guest Joan Fontaine — who had just finished shooting her Academy Award-winning role in Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion" — that she and her husband, actor Brian Aherne, extended their one-day stop in Williamsburg by several days.

The stars charmed their fellow guests and tavern staff by asking the costumed waiters, hosts and hostesses to pose with them for pictures, the paper reported.

Soon the tavern became a favorite stop for visiting service members, too, on their tours of the historic town that — with the outbreak of World War II —touted its role as a cradle of democracy.

Thousands came from nearby training and mobilization camps, and their experiences helped make the bustling tavern one of the Historic Area's best-remembered attractions.

"It was always meant to be a lively place," Klee says.

"And even with the changes that have taken place over the years, that idea of functioning as a real tavern has remained."

Two years ago, the structure underwent a highly visible interior overhaul, with the dark-stained and varnished finishes of the original design replaced by more authentic paints chosen from a carefully researched palette of Williamsburg's 18th-century colors.

Workmen also labored to make the exposed wall framing look more like it should, stripping the inaccurate surface and adding nail holes to show the effects of past finishing choices.

What resulted was an interior that looks more like the 1700s than it ever did, with a color, texture and brightness that's far closer to those of the past, Webster says.

"Today, we give a lot of attention to those details. We know more about them and why they're important," he adds.

"Before it was very dark in here, making it very difficult to serve at night. So we actually made it brighter, lighter and more functional by playing into a more accurate 18th-century palette."

Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783.

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