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A Wing Aloft Again

The long-lost wing of offices is reconstructed at Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest.

Project: Poplar Forest office wing, Forest, VA

Architect: Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker Architects, LLP, Albany, NY; John Mesick, Principal

Owner: The Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest, Forest, VA; Travis C. McDonald, Director of Architectural Restoration

By Eve M. Kahn

House museums that have lost sections to demolition over the centuries do not typically put up conjectural replacements. That is, curators do not rebuild what they cannot prove was once there, based on photos or other incontestable evidence. But for the staff at Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's 1810s country retreat near Lynchburg, VA, no conjecture has been required about how Jefferson liked to design and build, despite a dearth of surviving photos. Throughout his career, he followed Palladian strictures. He never wavered in his commitment to Palladio's recommended measurements and molding profiles and hired only craftspeople who could meet Palladian standards.

"We've become conversant with his battery of architectural elements – the way he proportioned everything, from the windowsills to the entablatures and the kinds of tools his workmen carried from house to house," explains John Mesick of Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker Architects (MCWB), the Albany, NY, firm that has been restoring Poplar Forest for two decades. "The system all locks in, and it's backed up in the archaeological record and Jefferson's letters. We've actually had to guess very little."

The firm just finished rebuilding Poplar Forest's long-lost wing of offices. Extending 100 ft. from the brick house's octagonal body, the wing originally contained a kitchen, laundry room, smokehouse and storage space. Its flat roof deck, which Jefferson called a "terras" (terrace), served as the family's favorite spot for communing with nature. "About twilight of the evening," he wrote to his daughter Martha in 1817, "we sally out with the owls and bats and take our evening exercise on the terras."

MCWB staffers and Poplar Forest's in-house artisans have brought back the wing's innovative 1810s technology – including haute-cuisine cooking equipment and exactly 82 gutter spouts – while adhering to construction practices and materials that Jefferson would have recognized from his two decades (1806-26) of construction onsite. The current project craftspeople have been digging up fieldstone for foundation masonry, kilning limestone into mortar, and hand-planing slabs of pine and poplar. A few invisible stainless-steel fasteners and a waterproof roof membrane "are practically all we've added here that's not strictly traditional," says Travis McDonald, who has served as the museum's architectural restoration director since 1989.

McDonald joined the staff soon after a nonprofit, the Corporation for Jefferson's Poplar Forest, took over the estate from private owners who were unable to afford much maintenance. The house, which Jefferson's heirs had sold off two years after his death in 1826, had only changed hands a few times in its life, but nonetheless suffered drastic changes. In 1845, "flames consumed the house, reducing it to a roofless ruin," writes historian Hugh Howard in Thomas Jefferson, Architect (Rizzoli, 2003). After the fire, the owners added a dormered third floor to the two-story octagon, ripped out its central skylight, blocked up windows and fireplaces and rearranged partitions and doors. The office wing ended up truncated into a pair of pitched-roof outbuildings for a kitchen and a smokehouse.

When the museum started archaeological explorations in 1989, the ghosts of the wing's original outline soon emerged. The staff has since dug down to determine the locations of its room dividers and even the polygonal or oval fixtures in what McDonald calls "a radically modern kitchen for its time." Jefferson's head chef, a slave named James Hemings (whose brother John was Jefferson's favorite carpenter; their sister Sally was probably their owner's mistress), had trained at Paris restaurants in the 1780s. James apparently taught Poplar Forest's slave chefs how to operate the likes of a set kettle (a pot nestled in a round brick trough over burning coals, providing a steady supply of hot water) and a stew-pot range (a row of iron grilles for keeping different pans at different temperatures). "Probably only two dozen stew-pot ranges, at most, were ever built in America," says McDonald.

The museum has spent a decade reconstructing the complicated office wing while performing phase after phase of restoration on the octagon. "These are some of our most careful clients, making very considered decisions at every step, and we have some very careful clients," says Mesick. The curators analyzed the wing's surviving bricks, which came in half-a-dozen shades and shapes, then ordered replicas from the Old Carolina Brick Company of Salisbury, NC. The project's head mason, Jimmy Price of Virginia Lime Works of Madison Heights, VA, formulated mortar according to Jeffersonian recipes. "We've figured out how to burn the lime in a kiln and slake it into putty," says McDonald. "Once it's slaked, we follow the traditional practice of storing it in holes in the ground for a year or two to break down any pieces of limestone that didn't break down in the kiln. Then we add sand and beat the stiff putty with a big wooden maul, so it comes around to the right pliable consistency." The resulting slow-curing mortar, he adds, "has a great advantage over quick-drying commercial lime mortar that can develop shrinkage cracks. I'm a big proponent of the back-to-lime movement."

Atop the finished brick walls, staff carpenters have wielded mallets, adzes and chisels to copy what McDonald calls "Jefferson's only architectural invention: a hidden roof system that creates a flat deck, a system he'd been developing and perfecting for over 30 years at the White House, Monticello and the University of Virginia." Poplar Forest's carpenters have slotted together some 40 oak ridge joists, each covered in over 100 hand-planed antique pine shingles that conceal a rubber membrane. Each of the gutter joists, which end in U-shaped scuppers that protrude through the entablature, weighs 300 pounds. Stainless-steel fasteners connect the Brazilian Ipe deck sleepers to floorboards made from 5x10-ft. panels of quartersawn, knot-free white oak.

The oak flooring, McDonald says, "can be lifted in case we need to make roof repairs." But he expects his team's handiwork to far outperform Jefferson's version. The Palladian architect declared that his roofs "never leaked." But archival records prove him wrong – by 1825, his carpenters already had to rebuild the office wing's rotted gutters.

Inside the rebuilt wing's four rooms, exhibits now point out the structural marvels overhead, and videos and photos based – on decades of research – reveal how they were originally engineered and have risen again. Visitors are also allowed onto the terras, where a barely noticeable stainless-steel railing meets safety codes at the perimeter. "We put in as minimal a post-and-rail system as we could after going through a lot of prototypes to make sure it would disappear architecturally from a distance," says McDonald. "We want people to understand that 150 years ahead of his time, Jefferson integrated architecture and nature with an open roof deck at this idealistic house."  

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