Paving the way to Colonial Williamsburg

jojacobs@vagazette.com

Just blocks away from fife and drum music and musket cracks, scholars at the Bruton Heights Campus work to make the Colonial Williamsburg experience possible.

A small army of about 150 librarians, archivists and researchers toil behind the scenes on the campus, restoring artifacts and curating thousands of books and documents about America's origins.

They work in a cluster of buildings tucked between Colonial Parkway and Lafayette Street in the northeast of the Williamsburg Historic District.

Opened in 1997, the 34-acre campus consolidated conservation efforts after they were previously carried out in multiple office sites along Boundary Street, Franklin Street and off Botetourt Street, according to Joe Straw, Colonial Williamsburg manager of public relations.

Colonial Williamsburg offers tours of the campus three times each week to small groups of ticket holders.

"You get a panorama of what it takes to get history," said Dennis Mauney, 68, of Woodbridge. Mauney was one of nine visitors who took a Monday afternoon tour.

Bruton's beginnings

Within the walls of the facility, education was always the mission. Bruton Heights School was built on Colonial Williamsburg land in 1940 as a school for blacks and funded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Colonial Williamsburg, Straw said.

The school taught grades 1-12 and served as an important center of the black community, offering a clinic and adult education as well. After desegregation in the late 1960s, the school functioned as an elementary school until its closure in 1989 with the construction of new schools to serve the area. Colonial Williamsburg agreed to acquire the school when it closed, according to the organization's website.

The original building, renamed Bruton Heights Education Center and braced by an expansion of two additional buildings, was reborn as part of a Colonial Williamsburg office campus eight years later.

The tradition of education endures.

As a Colonial Williamsburg facility, the campus holds the 70,000-square-foot DeWitt Wallace Collections and Conservation Building and the historic Bruton Heights Education Center, which provides classrooms, research offices, and Colonial Williamsburg Productions facilities. The John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library with its hundreds of thousands of items rounds out the facility.

Books that take readers back in time

A group of nine visitors escaped the August heat to get a behind-the-scenes look at the Colonial Capital on Monday afternoon. The tour followed the low and knowledgeable voice of tour guide Jerry Hedgepeth, a veteran volunteer at Colonial Williamsburg, as he led the way through departments and stopped at hallway exhibits to make connections between facility artifacts and the frontlines of Colonial Williamsburg.

"That's where the idea of your county was born," Hedgepeth said as the tour observed a model of Raleigh's Tavern, a founding fathers meeting spot.

Starting in the historic school building, Hedgepeth shepherds the visitors into the Colonial Williamsburg Productions facilities. The visitors gather around a large wooden table strewn with books in a room full of film equipment.

Here, Paul Aron, director of publications, presents Colonial Williamsburg's print offerings. Colonial Williamsburg publishes four or five books a year, and except for actual ink-on-paper printing does everything from editing to design in-house, Aron said. Subject matter ranges from histories of the era to colonial ghost stories. The books are written by Colonial Williamsburg staff.

While larger museums often have their own publishing department, it's less common for history museums, Aron said. Publishing provides a means of keeping Colonial Williamsburg's coffers full for programming, according to Aron.

Come September, readers can look forward to several new titles, including an adult coloring book of colonial quilts.

Though playing the role of curator now, Aron is an author himself. He has written several books for Colonial Williamsburg, the latest titled "Founding Feuds," which explores the nation's founders' strained relationships.

"We tend to think politics is nastier than before," Aron said. "But the founders had fights, too."

The visitors file out of Aron's impromptu library onto the main event: a stop at a laboratory focused on painting conservation.

Reclaiming the era's art

The Wallace Building has nine laboratories that refurbish and repair artifacts for Colonial Williamsburg, each area focusing on a artifact type like furniture or paper.

Hedgepeth leads the tour into the paintings laboratory, its tables covered with canvases and containers of treatment chemicals. Shelley Svoboda, conservator of paintings, takes the tour down the path of repairing colonial pigment.

Colonial Williamsburg doesn't just pick up just any painting. Each of its 1,500 pieces has gone through a vetting process to determine whether the piece fits the goals of the organization's collection, Svoboda said. Colonial Williamsburg draws on auction house offerings and donations to grow its collection.

Svoboda assesses what work needs to be done once a piece is acquired and prepares accordingly.

A common concern has nothing to do with pigment: each piece has to have its canvas structurally secured. Svoboda also works to restore color, and clean and repair tears. With a small brush or cotton swab in hand, Svoboda treats paintings with piece-specific liquid or gel made from a collection of 2,000 chemicals.

Among the more common issues is grime on the works created by the smoke from fireplaces that burned centuries ago in homes where the paintings were hung.

"(Our work) really does bring back what the artist wanted us to see," Svoboda said of the process.

Svoboda's work space is crowded by early 1800s portraits in preparation for a fall 2017 exhibition. The exhibition focuses on early republic-era portraiture to create an idea of the people who commissioned the works and the artists who created them.

A variety of people, not just the rich, commissioned portraits at this time due to the general prosperity of the fledgling United States economy, Svoboda said.

Most paintings are destined for viewing in Colonial Williamsburg's museums. A smaller number are placed in historic buildings like the Governor's Palace, Svoboda said. And just as Colonial Williamsburg borrows works from other institutions, its paintings are lent to other museums as well.

"It's a pretty active collection," Svoboda said.

As a fitting bookend, the tour concludes at a more established library than Aron's setup — the Rockefeller Library.

The library holds tens of thousands of books, and hundreds of thousands of photographs, maps and microforms, according to Colonial Williamsburg's website. Among its artifacts is one of the eight known copies of George Washington's journal.

The library is open to public, providing a location for people to learn about the 18th century world and restoration efforts at Colonial Williamsburg, said Carl Childs, deputy director of the library.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 804-269-1769.

Want to take a tour?

When: Monday, Wednesday and Friday 2:30-4 p.m.

Where: 301 First St., Williamsburg, Va.

Admission: Only Colonial Williamsburg Annual Pass members or hotel guests may take part in the tour. The tour requires a free event ticket and each tour is limited to 15 people.

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