Reconstruction of the Print House
at Historic St. Mary’s City
Years of research are taking form as another interpretive structure rises in the Town Center of St. Mary’s City. There are no pictures of the original, its builders left no plans, and there are no records, receipts, or other written material to tell us what this structure looked like. Researchers believe Dutch entrepreneur Garrett Van Sweringen built this rediscovered structure shortly after Smith’s Ordinary burned in 1677—possibly as its replacement. Its reconstruction will be guided by archaeological evidence found on the site and researchers’ knowledge of historical structures and building techniques.
Discovery of this lost building began in the early 1990s, when the 19th-century Brome-Howard house and associated outbuildings were moved off the 17th-century town center to allow the museum to develop and interpret the historic capital. Archaeologists began mining the area for information that could be lost once the site was disturbed. Near the area where slaves had been housed, a significant amount of lead type, typical of that used in the 1600’s for a printing press, was recovered.
In 1998, archaeological excavations began in earnest. The site, now known as the Print House, was the focus of summer field schools as well as Tidewater Archaeology Weekends through 2004. Archaeologists uncovered a fairly complicated site. Originally, two 19th-cenutry slave quarters stood here. Photographs reveal that one disappeared by 1933. The second was moved with the house and other outbuildings in 1991. Archaeologists hoped to avoid damaging the foundations of the slave quarters, to save it for future research, but it turned out the building they were seeking was hiding below one of the slave quarter’s foundations.
When the slave quarters were constructed, the builders destroyed some of the 17th-century evidence of the Print House, but much of the features still remain. Archaeologists found 17th-century artifacts—pipes and ceramics—and major features of the building —post holes, bricks, trenches—but it took a few years to identify the outline of the entire building. By fall 2003, the structure was fully uncovered and archaeologists began to analyze the excavated features. In time, researchers identified a main building: a standard post-in-the-ground structure with wattle and daub chimney, measuring 20 feet by 25 feet, with a shed on the side. This building had apparently gone through three major renovations, each resulting in very different room. At first, the shed didn’t extend the full length of the building. It had remarkably large posts, about a foot across set three feet in ground. After a while, the shed was expanded to the full length of the building, the posts were replaced by smaller posts, a trench was dug and sills were added to support a wood floor. Finally, in the 1690s, the wood floor was replaced with a tile floor. Archaeologists found that the structure had an abundance of glazed windows and the rooms had plaster walls. Why was the building improved when the threat of losing the capital must have been clear? Perhaps the improvements were part of a strategy to keep the capital where it was? Businessmen may have been upgrading facilities to make the city more capital-like?
Architectural historians and HSMC archaeologists developed construction drawings using their research and information from other buildings of the period that are approximately the same size and used similar materials and construction techniques. The Tuttle House in Ipswich, Massachusetts, is a primary example. The appearance will mimic researchers’ best estimate of the original. The materials and techniques used in construction are as close to the first building as practical. In 17th-century Maryland, buildings weren’t built to last. In the re-creations at HSMC, durability and visitor safety are considerations. Concessions to longevity include cement footers and the use of wood preservatives and solvents to repel termites.
Throughout 2005, modern artisans Berkeley Taylor and Billy Taylor logged, hewed, and carved poplar beams and locust posts near their home base in Virginia and in the woods surrounding the museum. A pit saw was used to form boards for floors and roughing out posts. In August 2005, most materials were moved to the Print House site, where the curing process and additional shaping continued. The building was plotted on the site, the footers poured, and posts placed in the post holes previously found by the archaeologists. The skill of the carpenters is evident in the careful carving of specialized joinery that holds the timber ribs (bents) of the building together. As the lumber beams dry, the wood will sometimes develop a slight twist. In order to ensure a tight fit of joined pieces, the carpenters must predict this and custom carve each piece. Mortise and tenon and scarf joints, trunnels (wood pegs), and other traditional methods are being used in constructing the building.
The Print Shop function may have been a secondary or later use of the building, but interpretation at the site will include HSMC’s reproduction press so that the important story of a printer’s role in the colonial capital can be told. The building will be open to visitors in March, when exhibits open for the season.
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