The Glass House Project, the restoration/reconstruction of the ruins of Francis Lightfoot Lee’s historic home of Menokin near Warsaw in Richmond County, is finally underway.
And if all goes as planned, by early 2023 visitors will be able to see and go inside this new model for restoration that will preserve the remaining portions of the 1769 house and replace missing walls, floors, and sections of the roof with sections of glass.
After being discussed for more than a decade, the Menokin Foundation was able to start the $5 million project to uniquely preserve the home built by the signer of the Declaration of Independence, thanks in part to a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Money has been and continues to be raised to provide the match for the grant.
Sam McKelvey, Menokin’s executive director, noted that in recent years, work best described as “stabilization” has been done on two corners of the structure. The special challenge for preserving this home of Francis and Rebecca Tayloe Lee—the manor house on a plantation that sits inland from a bay at the end of Cat Point Creek—is finding a way to connect what’s left of the house with new structural sections. It sits on a back road between Montross and Warsaw, about an hour from Fredericksburg.
Early on, residents who created the Menokin Foundation and built a visitor center on the 500 acres made it clear they didn’t just want to slap stone and masonry in the voids. They believed then and now that the missing sections of the house provide a learning and teaching opportunity to quite literally see into and behind the walls of a colonial home.
For years, those leaders struggled with ways to preserve that opportunity while at the same time making the house safe, whole and protected from the elements. The answer: Use large sections of strong glass, structurally supported by steel in spots, to fill in the missing pieces of the house and roof.
McKelvey noted that Phase 1 of the project, which is expected to go through next May, will be shoring up existing walls and other sections of masonry and stone— “everything that’s standing being stabilized to hold glass and steel.”
He described Phase 2, which is expected to go through the end of 2021, as “infill, putting back some stones and other materials to create straight lines and sections to meet the glass apparatus when it comes.”
Phase 3, expected to start sometime in mid-2022 and go into 2023, is adding the glass and steel, which will be manufactured elsewhere and delivered.
McKelvey noted that much of the early part of that final phase will involve measurements down to the millimeter so the glass panels can be made to fit perfectly.
In a release on the start of construction, McKelvey pointed out that with the Glass House Project and all the initiatives on the Menokin site, “Our goal is making history visceral, real, and relevant, and showing people how they are a part of the continuum of stories that make up the identity of a place.
The director noted that Menokin works hard to link together the sweep of history: “The American Indian experience, the arrival of the English in North America, the story of chattel slavery and privilege, the colonial period and the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and civil rights to our own time.”
The release noted that direct connections to Menokin’s past can be found among the ruins. Fingerprints are visible in handmade bricks, marks of hand tools are etched on the timbers, and the successes and failures of the builders are revealed. And it noted that views of the surrounding landscape through the glass walls will continually connect visitors to the natural environment and the traces of the tobacco plantation where generations of enslaved laborers once worked.
A team has been assembled to complete this approach to historic preservation. It includes the firms of Machado Silvetti for architecture and design, Consigli Construction Co. for the construction work, DATA Investigations for archaeology, Eckersley O’Callaghan for glass design, Encore Sustainable Architects for historical architecture, John Fidler for preservation technology, Reed Hilderbrand for landscape architecture and Tillotson Design Associates for lighting.
McKelvey noted that the use of glass for the reconstruction of the house is not the first unique approach to interpreting the history of the site.
Another example is the recent creation of what’s called “The Remembrance Structure,” a pavilion erected above the archaeological footprint of an 18th-century slave dwelling on the property. It doesn’t have permanent foundations—to allow future research and avoid disturbing the site—and is wrapped in a translucent agricultural fabric that glows at night, thanks to solar lighting.
McKelvey noted that the pavilion, like the Glass House, is all about connecting visitors to the landscape and history at Menokin, and to start discussions about the people who lived there, including slaves.
“People inside the house will be able to see the fields where the slaves worked,” as well as the trails leading down to the docks where the plantation’s goods were shipped and parts of the grounds where Native Americans once lived.
The director noted that, as in other projects, new discoveries—like an undiscovered second porch on the building—will likely mean that changes and decisions will have to be made as construction happens on how best to interpret the house and its history.
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415