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TideWriters Tales
Menokin scrutinized (1997)
By Janet Abbott Fast

     Colonial Williamsburg came to Warsaw last week, arriving with a large dose of enthusiasm. Architectural historians puzzled and pondered the remains of Menokin for the better part of a brisk day.

     Martin King, of Warsaw, president of the Menokin foundation, whose goal is to restore the house, contacted the group to determine their interest and request their help.

     Menokin, was completed in 1773. In 1769 Francis Lightfoot Lee married Rebecca Tayloe, daughter of Col. John Tayloe II. The couple was given land in Richmond County, adjacent to Mt. Airy as a wedding gift. 

     With the land came plans to build a house similar to Mt. Airy, smaller in design. Upon completion the couple moved in and lived their entire married life at Menokin. 

     “Isn’t that luscious? It’s unusually lavish masonry detail,” noted Ed Chappell, head of the the Department of Architectural Research for Colonial Williamsburg. An upper window on the front of Menokin caught his eye. It is some of the most lavish 18th century stonework in America, and has the same artistic sense as Mt. Airy, he continued.

     “It’s as though it were a house in the Italian countryside. It’s very much like high style stonework,” he added. His goal was to capture as much information as possible. How was the framing put together? The cornices, plaster, woodwork, wallpaper. What first owns that most important space, he wondered aloud. “It’s incredibly rich in elegance—and so derelict,” he said pensively. 

     Picking up a board, Chappell said, “The edges were held together with splines (little pieces of wood to keep a board from buckling). There are cut marks trimmed (into the board) to go over joists. Note the quality of wood. It’s part pine. The nails were hand made at a forge, with no head. If you can do that (with a piece of board) imagine what you can do with a doorway.”

     Hugh Miller, a board member of Menokin Foundation, and former head of the Department of Historic Resources for the Commonwealth, observed that the stone walls apparently were built first and the the brick added later, after the stonemasons went home. 

     “There was never an attempt to tie them together, which is probably why they haven’t collapsed. The chimney is structurally sound. Even though the walls are cracked, they probably won’t collapse. It’s sitting there by good habits.”

     Curator of Architecture for Colonial Williamsburg Willie Graham set up his camera equipment on a tripod and began to take detail pictures of the stone work and stucco. Mark R. Wenger and Carl Launsbury, architectural historians, worked to verify a match from earlier drawings to the remains of Menokin.

     As they fit the pieces of the puzzle together, their stream of consciousness thoughts flew -“It’s not a hip roof, it’s a hip on hip. They’re pretty big hip rafters.” “It’s trussed, you can see. Here’s a hip rafter coming from the corner. The chimney’s not on center.” “Let me look at the mutton (on a window).” 

     “Look at the breast of the fireplace....just beyond the window opening.” “Do we have a king post?” “You get a king post? Those guys tendon into a big gert. There’s a deep scribe line on the dove tail. Wait, it’s another one. I wonder if out here they’re not cutting a hog curve. I’m not sure it’s not hewn. Why such a deep scribe.”
Chappell says, “Let’s summarize what we know. I think maybe it’s a hew mark. Often they scribe in where they’re going to join.” Miller advises that the scribe is usually done with a scribing awl, which looks like an ice pick. A hew is from a broad ax or an adz.

     King said, “It’s real detective work figuring it out.” In addition to rebuilding the structure, he envisions Menokin as a place where folks will be able to study birds, plants and butterflies as they were in earlier times.
The architects can tell where the timbers fit, the way they came apart and the kinds of framing systems used, Miller said. He expressed a desire to create a guide to reading buildings, the obvious and not so obvious. As an example, he pointed out the use of iron in the fireplace. “If it’s original, it’s an early use.” 

     He noted the interior stairway, that stucco was added later. “We know the sequence of owners.” He sees Menokin as an encyclopedia, but one needs to know how to open it and read it. “How to protect, conserve and put it back together is a learning process, which is the key part. It’s unusual to be able to look at a building and see how it goes together.”

     Graham found a piece of false plate, peculiar to Virginia houses. Rafters don’t usually sit directly on top of floor joists. “This is a real unusual false plate. It’s real fat.”

     More stream of conscious, “You got one at the center of the window. I think they’re joists. Before you say anything...” Suddenly a shout, “Change order!” “Looks like you’ve got two joists running this way. They’ve got to nail the lathing to something. It’s obviously a change order.”

     Another shout from Graham, who is behind rubble, “Oh! Here’s the purlin. I got two!” And Chappell responds, “That’s’ a nice round number,” while the detective work goes on. 

© 1997 Janet Abbott Fast All Rights Reserved

Additional information about Menokin today is available at http://www.menokin.org/


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