Neither ruin nor aftershock – WSJ
There are two things you can do with an architectural ruin, and both are unfortunate. You can “stabilize” it – a euphemism for slowing the rate of decay – or you can craft the missing pieces to produce a facsimile of the original. The restaurateurs of Menokin, the Virginia plantation home of Declaration of Independence Signatory Francis Lightfoot Lee, have now found a third way. By burying the wreckage in a clear glass shell that replicates the exact dimensions of the original house, they create a hybrid that is neither a ruin nor a replica but something in between. It will be completed in 2023 and today it is the most ambitious historic restoration project in the United States.
Menokin, which has retained the Algonquin Indian name of the place, owes its survival to its remoteness. It’s an hour’s drive from any freeway in the northern Virginia Pass, a lost hole after intensive tobacco cultivation depleted the soil in the 18th century. But it was still flourishing in 1769, when Lee married the daughter of John Tayloe II and received the plantation as a wedding gift. Tayloe obviously gave Lee not only the land and 20 slaves, but the house as well, as it is a pocket version of her own home, Mount Airy, one of Virginia’s most extravagant colonial plantations. Each follows the same fashionable Palladian formula of a central block located behind two flanking outbuildings, and each is in exquisite red sandstone masonry – a rarity in Virginia, where plantation houses were typically brick or wood.
Lee died in 1797, leaving no heirs. His house passed through a series of sharecroppers, who barely touched it. By the 1960s, the structure was abandoned and, in anticipation of its destruction, its decorative panels and chimneys were removed for preservation. And just in time, a falling tree quickly crushed the house, leaving only half of it standing, along with two abandoned brick chimneys. It could have been the end if the Menokin Foundation had not acquired it in 1995 and started the long stabilization process.
There was never any question of rebuilding Menokin as it was. This type of restoration has long been discredited by Colonial Williamsburg, whose gleeful recreations of vanished colonial buildings have become a watchword for what not to do. Today, the main commandment of the historic preservation community is not to fake. From a strictly materialist standpoint, the results have been successful – every shard of historical material reverently preserved, every contemporary addition of glaringly obvious – but not from a psychological standpoint; the restored buildings no longer looked old. They looked like the Puritan white boxes of contemporary museum design, which they sort of are.
Machado Silvetti, the prominent Boston architectural firm that was entrusted with the restoration of Menokin, admitted that such a conventional approach would not work. On the one hand, the ruin itself presented an unusual opportunity, as the standing portions were surprisingly well preserved. For an 18th century house to survive with just two coats of interior paint, that’s unheard of. The tree that sliced it exposed a fascinating cross section of stucco, stone, brick and plaster. Here was a collection of 18th century building trades: masonry and stone cutting, carpentry and carpentry, plastering and enamelling. Everything is peeled off like in a scientific dissection, and will remain visible as Machado Silvetti’s glass wall begins where Menokin’s jagged stone wall ends.
The fact that the Lee family did not have children turned out to be an added bonus, as Menokin had none of those direct descendants who are the joy and bane of all historic homes, and who can transform them. in pious family sanctuaries. In fact, the only families historically associated with the property are the descendants of the slaves who worked it. The Menokin Foundation identified them and involved them in the project, one of the consequences of which is that the house is not treated as an isolated monument but as a component of a complex cultural and economic landscape. The sites of three slave quarters have already been identified, one of which has already been speculatively reconstructed (speculatively, since the only indications of its shape are the post holes in its wooden frame) as a place reminiscent of gathering and memory. After entering the visitor center, one will want to stop here before heading to the house itself.
This sheds new light on the surviving woodwork, some of which is surely made by slave labor. It is strangely expressive in its disassembled condition, showing an exquisite workmanship on one side and the coarse adze notches on the other, speaking of ceremony and formality, but also of work. Reinstalling the woodwork in a reconstructed house would immediately make it less interesting. But in the transparent shell of a building by Machado Silvetti, we can see both sides of the story, so to speak, at the same time.
It is this duality, and not the use of the glass itself, that makes this restoration so important. At first glance, its two-part structure suggests parasitic architecture, that recent trend for affixing miniature buildings to older buildings like parasites to a host. But his visual strategy is much more sophisticated. Its glass planes can be read as a solid wall or as non-substantial air; look once and you see the house in all its volumetric absoluteness, look again and see the jagged ruin. It’s like those drawings that can be seen as a duck or a rabbit, depending on what shape your brain assigns to it. Menokin, taking into account what we now understand about the elasticity of visual perception, is our first significant postmodern restoration. It’s a cannonball thrown between the feet of the historic preservation community.
-Sir. Lewis teaches architectural history at Williams and reviews architecture for the Journal.
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