Traditional Building Portfolio




Building with Past Techniques

Project: Historic St. Mary's City's Brick Chapel, St. Mary's City, MD
Architect: Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker Architects, Albany, NY; John Mesick, principal

By Annabel Hsin

In 1634, English colonists settled near the junction of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, designating the location Maryland's first capital and naming the town St. Mary's City. The colony was led by the Catholic Calvert family while settlers that came with them were predominately Protestants. During this time of religious conflict, the Calvert's maintained a tenuous hold on power. Nonetheless, the capital saw great developments with a strong tobacco-based economy and population growth in the latter half of the century. New public buildings were constructed including a Jesuit chapel (circa 1667), which was Maryland's first brick building. By the end of the 1600s, a group of Protestants led a revolution that resulted in the relocation of the capital to Annapolis as well as the closing of all Catholic churches and schools. The chapel was dismantled by the Jesuits and its materials were taken to build their new manor several miles away.

The land had been largely undisturbed, protected under fields of tobacco, corn and wheat, making it the ideal location for archaeological excavations and historical research. In 1938, following a local belief that a Jesuit chapel once stood on a farm field, architectural historian H. Chandlee Forman tested the site and discovered a brick foundation in the shape of a Latin cross. The foundation walls were 3-ft. thick and extended to a depth of 5-ft. below grade level. The land, however, remained in private ownership until a museum, Historic St. Mary's City (HSMC) acquired it in the 1980s.

Excavations began again with the goal of retrieving information so that the chapel could be accurately rebuilt. Unfortunately, there were no surviving documents that described the chapel. Archeologists found wood lathe without traces of plaster, which suggested that there was once a timber-clad ceiling. Fragments of diamond-shaped clear glass and pieces of lead were believed to have been used in windows. Surviving flat roof tiles indicated a roof slope that historically, was termed "true-pitch" – about 47 degrees.

In 1996, HSMC approached Mesick, Cohen, Wilson and Baker Architects (MCWB) of Albany, NY, to discuss design plans for the chapel using the limited information found on the site. "I can remember at the interview the clients wanted to reconstruct the chapel, but they didn't have much money," says John Mesick, principal at MCWB. "So they thought to build it out of concrete blocks and veneer it with bricks. I was bold enough to say that nothing is known about the design of this building other than the footprint and the materials from archeology; no matter what we do we'll probably get the design wrong. There's no way of accurately evoking and reviving the design, but if we use this as an exercise in retrieval of historic building processes and techniques perhaps we'll be forgiven by our future generations. I guess, based on that argument, they hired us!"

Mesick and his design team started their architectural research by learning what the founders of the chapel were familiar with. "The chapel had been originally built by four Jesuit priests and they were all Englishmen, but since they were Catholic, they couldn't be educated in England," says Mesick. "The priests went to Flanders where there was a seminary to educate English Catholics – two of them had gone to Rome and the others had become missionaries in Ghent. We went to Flanders and Ghent to see what they would've known in the early 17th century.

"We started collecting pictures of Jesuit buildings from South America, the Philippines and Southeast Asia, and you always see the same formula being used on the façades. I've been practicing for 40 years and I've never realized that historically the façade is how the building spoke to the world. Many historic buildings were seen on all four sides but the façades were always dressed up. That notion became very strong when we designed the chapel because the rest of the building was really straightforward."

Indeed, with the exception of the western façade, all the elevations are relatively simple – brick walls with 12-ft. high windows and parapet gables. The main façade is differentiated by bricks veneered with lime stucco and scored to look like stone. Small obelisks were added to the corners of each elevation in the same manner as described in the surviving specifications for the construction of the nearby brick statehouse built in the 1670s. Columns of the Tuscan order were superimposed to accommodate the 25-ft. high walls. "Palladio mentions in his book that foundations should be one-fifth the height of the wall," says Mesick. "The chapel foundations are 5-ft. deep in an area where they only need to be 12-18-in. deep. The soil was very good so we speculated that the walls were probably very high. We came up with the height of around 25 feet for the walls."

Mesick also proposed reconstructing the chapel using historically accurate building materials. More than 25,000 hand-formed bricks, utilizing clay taken directly from the site, were molded and fired in a wood-burning kiln by masonry craftsman Henry Cersley near Charlottesville, VA. More than 6,000 of these were shaped by hand to provide decorative moldings using the same cut and rub process that had been employed originally.

Jimmy Price, principal at Madison Heights, VA-based Virginia Lime Works, prepared the lime mortar by firing crushed oyster shells and allowing the mortar to slack for 12 months before use. The mortar couldn't achieve set in cold weather so it took several seasons to erect the walls. At the outset of construction, Price decided to build an historically accurate wood-pole scaffolding that met current OSHA standards. Two wooden hand-crank lifts, as opposed to electrical lifts, were used to lift bricks and mortar. "While we were trying to use 17th-century building technology, Price was going one step further and replicated the mode of construction of that century," says Mesick.

Once the brick walls were finished, they were color-washed with alum and iron oxide, and the joints were penciled in afterwards – a method commonly used on buildings up until the 1800s. "We learned of the historic technique of color-washing to improve the appearance of brick structures while doing research on this building," says Mesick. "We think the walls were color-washed to clean up the mess made by lime spattered on the walls, which is very hard to get off the wall once it cures. I think the wash will last about 20 years and then it will have to be redone. That's why we don't find it surviving in-situ on buildings very often. However, tell-tale signs of the red wash can sometimes be found on mortar joints underneath the white penciling."

Working with David Fischetti from Cary, NC, a structural engineer renowned for his work with historic timber structures, the architects devised a roof framing system often found in 16th- and 17th-century buildings. This consisted of a mix of common rafters and principal trusses with raised collar ties that allowed the arched ceiling to extend upward into the roof space. Tom Rouse, chief designer at Blue Ridge Timber Frame of Swannanoa, NC, prepared CAD shop drawings to detail and precisely measure over 600 pieces of pine for the roof system and barrel-vaulted timber ceiling. Since the barrel-vault design didn't allow for parallel cords, the individual wood pieces in each of the seven main trusses had to interlock and support the weight of the roof as well as create the curve of the ceiling. The roof was finished in a clay tile imported from Keymer Tiles of West Sussex, England, that replicated the dimensions of the originals found on the site.

Archeologists found a piece of stone slab during their research that was probably imported from the Rhine Valley – it indicated the thickness and type of stone used for flooring. Sandstone from Brier Hill Stone Co. of Glenmont, OH, was selected for its likeness and was laid directly on the ground. "During this time, churches with stone floors and indoor burials had stones laid directly on the ground without mortar because the slabs were often lifted for digging new graves," says Mesick. "This taking up and putting down of floors was quite common all over Europe when burying people in churches."

The 1,300-sq. ft. interior is modest in design. Except for sleeves incorporated in the foundation for future upgrades, the structure doesn't include electrical lighting or other modern amenities. There are also no pews in the nave as the original congregation would have stood. For the architect and craftsperson, the Brick Chapel in St. Mary's City was a unique learning experience that required them to re-evaluate their former relationship. "Our drawings, by their very nature, were almost minimal," says Mesick. "We did count every brick course and tell them what the shape would be at each of the decorative details. That was something a 17th-century master mason would have known. However, during construction the process became much more about the craftsmen doing his own work rather than the architect directing it, which is wonderful and was how buildings were built in the past. By being more in touch with the problems that confronted the builders of the 17th century, we gained a better understanding of both architectural design and building technology from those times." TB

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