Find Good Conversation and Great Hot Chocolate at Richard Charlton’s Coffeehouse

Visits to Williamsburg always include stops to see old favorites and discover new things about them. At Bassett Hall, the 18th-century home where John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, lived during the initial restoration of the Historic Area, I took a closer look at a needlepoint chair and window treatments in the dining room. A tour exploring the design and function of several pieces of original furniture at the Brush-Everard House introduced us to a card table and a bookcase made by 18th-century Williamsburg furniture-maker Anthony Hay in the “neat and plain style” that was favored in Colonial Virginia.

This time, however, our plans included a destination we hadn’t visited before: Richard Charlton’s Coffeehouse, a recently reconstructed building in the Historic Area.

As we waited for a tour, we sat on the eight-foot-wide front porch with a low-sloped roof that runs the length of the building and learned many interesting facts.

During the 18th century, coffeehouses were genteel places to gather for the latest information. Discussion of the news and exchange of opinions took place over cups of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. In the mid-1760s, Richard Charlton, a wigmaker, acquired a store on the north side of Williamsburg’s Duke of Gloucester Street. Located at the far east end of the street, next to the Secretary’s Office and the Capitol, the building was the perfect location for a coffeehouse that would be attractive to and convenient for politicians, merchants and gentlemen to gather.

Charlton created two main rooms on the first floor of the building that was likely constructed about 1750. The southwest room was a simply decorated public space for people seeking refreshment and conversation. With a bar in one corner and a fireplace in the other, the room was paneled in horizontal wooden boards that were painted tan.

The southeast room offered a stark contrast. Plastered and wallpapered walls, a carpet on the floor, and tasteful furniture suggested that this refined, well-decorated space was suitable for the governor and his council that could also be rented for functions. Coffeehouse patrons of all classes mingled on the porch.

A third large space at the back of the first floor could have been rented by a tenant or as another place for meetings. Charlton and his wife, a dressmaker, lived on the half-story second floor until they moved in 1771.

After the Charltons moved, the building was used as a tavern, a store and a residence. In 1889, the coffeehouse was torn down to make room for a large Victorian building that was a boarding house for many years after the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. The building was lifted from its foundations and moved to its current location on North Henry Street in 1995.

Archaeological research took place at the coffeehouse site from 1996 to 1998, and again in the summer of 2008. Artifacts like a stoneware coffeepot and a kettle’s copper spout were uncovered from the site, suggesting that coffee was available at Charlton’s. However, remnants of tea bowls, teapots, strainers and a tea stand revealed that tea was also served there. Shards of wine bottles and animal bones found at the site supported the fact that Charlton later turned his establishment into a tavern, serving wine and offering meals.

Architectural researchers discovered that when the boarding house was built, almost half of the coffeehouse’s original foundation was left in place. Moreover, many of the original structure’s bricks, timbers, rafters, windows and doors were used in the construction of the Victorian home. This made them confident that the coffeehouse could be reconstructed on the site. Using documentary sources like newspaper advertisements and journal entries, they refined their model of what the original coffeehouse would have looked like.

Reconstruction of the coffeehouse began in 2008 and was completed in 2009. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Historic Trades department created much of the bricks, rafters, shingles, metal hardware and other construction material, using traditional 18th-century building methods.

The coffeehouse project was made possible by a $5 million gift from Deborah and Forrest E. Mars, Jr. of Big Horn, Wyoming, longtime supporters of Colonial Williamsburg.

During previous visits to Williamsburg, we’ve witnessed when the boarding house was occupied, when it was moved, when archaeological digs were taking place at the site, and when the current building was being constructed. This visit was the first time we were able to see the finished product of the coffeehouse project.

The coffeehouse tour allowed us to experience what this unique social environment would have been like. After asking us whether we were interested in renting a room, an interpreter portraying an 18th-century coffeehouse worker took us to the southwest room, where we visited with a member of the Williamsburg gentry over a cup of the most delicious, rich hot chocolate I’ve had. You can purchase the chocolate drink mix, which is made from an authentic colonial recipe.

A current exhibition at the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg also provides details about the recreation of Charlton’s Coffeehouse. “This Old Coffeehouse” shows how archaeology, architecture, decorative arts, historic trades and archival elements were involved in rebuilding the coffeehouse. Prints of period coffeehouses, Charlton’s estate inventory, and Virginia Gazette advertisements are complemented by archaeological artifacts recovered during excavation of the site, architectural fragments from the original structure, building models and reproductions of locks, hinges and wallpaper. The exhibition will remain on view through December 2012.

For more information about Charlton’s Coffeehouse, read Michael Olmert’s “Williamsburg Again Has An R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse” and “Exploring the Coffeehouse,” by Edward Chappell, from the Winter 2010 issue of Colonial Williamsburg Journal. To read about the reconstruction of the coffeehouse, visit this blog.

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One Response to Find Good Conversation and Great Hot Chocolate at Richard Charlton’s Coffeehouse

  1. Seasonsgirl says:

    We lived near Williamsburg when I was younger… it was where I learned to ride a two wheel bike for the first time. We spent a lot of time there, I was in the fife and drum core (for parades) as a preteen and had good friends who use to be actors there (I got to help sometimes). I have fond memories of being there. The photos take me back, but some things have changed as they usually do. :)

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