Re-Evaluating Historic Homes: Reconstruction

(Note: Reconstruction is the final part in a blog series exploring the meaning of several popular phrases and their meaning to historic buildings and homes.)

Everything from the history of a building, whether it is discovering its stories or uncovering its secrets, lies in its architecture. Many of us love historic architecture. Architecture provides us a peek into the past – surrounding us with reminders of beautiful and, at times, horrible occurrences in history. The preservation of historic architecture of buildings and homes, however, is a never-ending task.

Strict standards, regulated and monitored by the U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary’s Office through the National Park Service, can dictate anything and everything from paint colors, exterior modifications, and best practices for appropriately treating physical issues that may arise. These four distinctive yet interrelated standards – Preservation, Restoration, Rehabilitation, Reconstruction – exist to ensure the highest integrity for historic buildings is maintained.  So, what does reconstruction of a historic building mean?

The National Park Service formally defines reconstruction “as a contemporary depiction required to understand and interpret a property’s historic value (including the re-creation of missing components in a historic district or site); when no other property with the same associative value survives; and when sufficient historical documentation exists to ensure an accurate reproduction, Reconstruction may be considered as a treatment.” (Visit the National Park Service’s guidelines on reconstruction and treatments for buildings and homes to learn more.)

Reconstruction of historic buildings remains a debatable topic by preservationists, archaeologists, public historians, and academics, amongst each other as well as within their respective fields of study. However, no matter how intensely scholars debate, discuss, and even vigorously disagree about reconstruction, professionals who work at museums and historic sites continue to reconstruct historic buildings.

A few questions surrounding reconstruction as an appropriate methodology are, it is ethical to reconstruct historic buildings? It is worthwhile to reconstruct buildings, regardless of accurate historic documentation, for the benefit of general audiences and heritage tourism? Are there appropriate times to reconstruct historic buildings to broaden the interpretation of a museum or historic site? The simple answer is yes, but only when a museum or historic site follows best practices in ethics, research, craftsmanship, and interpretation. In other words, museums and historic sites following all the preservation laws and regulations and inform the public on why the museum or historic site reconstructed a building(s) are getting it right. The Secretary’s Standards through the National Park Service, define reconstruction as “the act or process of depicting, by means of new construction, the form, features, and details of a non-surviving site, landscape, building structure or object for the purpose of replicating its appearance at a specific period of time and in its original historic location.” Here are several good examples, nationally and locally regarding reconstruction of historic buildings.

Two of the best national recognized examples of reconstruction are Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Jamestowne, both in Virginia. In 1926, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller and Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin (read here a never-before-published composition by the Reverend Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin) partnered to save what remained of the old colonial capital of Virginia.

Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin, (Rector of the historic Bruton Episcopal Church (1715) in 1903-1909 and again in 1926-1938) was instrumental in convincing John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to restore Williamsburg to its colonial appearance. The church was originally part of the first restoration of the colonial town and in 1928-1939, an authentic restoration and partial reconstruction of the original church continues to provide an excellent example of reconstruction and restoration.
The historic Bruton Episcopal Church, Colonial Williamsburg, 2018. Image courtesy of the author.

Currently, Colonial Williamsburg has over eighty-eight restored historic buildings and homes and well over three-hundred-fifty reconstructed buildings since 1930, with the most recent reconstructed buildings being Charlton’s Coffeehouse (2009), the Anderson Blacksmith Shop and Public Armory (2011-2013), the Market House, and currently, the Windmill Project is slated to open this year.

Charlton’s Coffeehouse. Its importance cannot be understated. Coffeehouses all over London, England, operated as information centers and offered up forums for debated and discussions, including politics. It’s politics that affixes the coffeehouse at the apex of change in not only England but also, the American colonies, particularly in 1774-1776. Therefore, the reconstruction of Charlton’s Coffeehouse was so important to Colonial Williamsburg – in its original location, based on a 1767 newspaper ad: at the end of Duke of Gloucester Street, an 1880s photograph, years of painstaking historic research and archaeology, and was the first major restoration on Duke of Gloucester Street in fifty years.
Colonial Williamsburg, 2019. Image courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg.

While some public historians, archaeologists, and preservationists debated the accuracy and authenticity surrounding the reconstruction of historic buildings at Colonial Williamsburg, others often felt early on the core issue stemmed from Rockefeller’s focus on only the wealthy, white prominent citizens homes and government and trade buildings rather than the totality of Williamsburg’s built environment including poorer yeoman farmers and the enslaved communities. Within the past three-and-a-half decades, Williamsburg course-corrected and transformed its approach to reconstruction and even restoration, of its historic buildings, demonstrating an active willingness to address the complexities of spatial equity through a complete interpretation centered around sound historic research, archaeology, preservation, and conservation.

At Historic Jamestowne, it’s all about visualizing the past. For nearly thirty years, archaeology has remained the driver for furthering our collective knowledge to learn more about the first established English colony in 1607.  Under the director of Dr. William Kelso, former archaeologist at Monticello and State of Virginia’s archaeologist, his insight, tenacity, and quest for further research led to the discovery of the first post holes found between 1995-1995. (Click here to learn more about this remarkable historic discovery.)

The site of the Jamestowne Fort revealed the footprints of not only the fort itself, but also numerous structures that once lied within it. During this time, archaeologists and historians determined to partially reconstruct some of the physical elements of the fort to help visitors and researchers gain a better understanding of the buildings and the fort’s defenses. There is not a current plan to fully reconstruct the fort. But the current reconstructed buildings do provide a sense of place as to what life may have been like for those living in the early 17th century. With any historic project, whether it’s extensive in the case of Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Jamestowne or a smaller local project, best practices require us to pose questions that help direct authentic interpretation to tell the best and most inclusive story. As in the case of Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Jamestowne, their decades-long exploration to seek truth and tell the full history of those sites, actively required (and still do) investigation into Native American history, African American history, settlement and migration patterns, environmental history, military history, and changes in the landscape including early memorialization and preservation of both historic sites.

The 90-minute interpretive tour at Historic Jamestowne showcases the archaeological findings and provides relatable content on the restoration and reconstruction work that has led the way in helping visitors to better understand the founding of not only the fort, but the first seat of government in the colonies – now the United States, how all people engaged with one another, and the early 20th century work to preserve the site.
Image courtesy of the author, March 2022.

All reconstructed buildings are fully based on evidence from archaeological excavations as well as intensive historic research and personal accounts from the period. Visitors to Historic Jamestowne today see reconstructed buildings based on extensive, detailed research and collaboration across multiple fields of study.

Reconstructing the buildings found through archaeology and historic research allows Historic Jamestowne to provide answers on how and why the original structures were originally built as well as maintained over time. Currently, visitors now see the reconstructed sections of the palisade walls and bulwarks, a partial frame of the 1617 church, and a blacksmith shop, used seasonally for interpretive demonstrations. Through archaeological interpretation, hundreds of thousands of artifacts pertaining to the lives of all who inhabited this landscape are carefully cared for, documented, and maintained in their on-site research facility, with many artifacts on display inside of the Archaearium Museum.

Exterior image of the historic church at Historic Jamestowne, Virginia, March 2020. Through archaeology, archaeologists located the original cobblestones surrounding the exterior of the church. Constructed in 1617, it became the second church in Historic Jamestowne and it is where the first representative government in English American convened the first General Assembly from July 30, 1619 to August 4, 1619. Archaeologists are currently exploring the church tower, following previous excavations in the area that revealed how the church shaped the growth of Jamestowne.
Image courtesy of the author.

Two local examples have historic significance to the built environment of Williamson County, TN; the reconstructed enslaved dwelling at Carnton, located in Franklin and two c.1806 reconstructed log cabins (relocated 90 miles and brought to a homestead in 2001) located in Fairview.

Carnton is a local historic treasure. Located directly off Lewisburg Pike, just outside of downtown Franklin, its significance tied to the November 30, 1864, Battle of Franklin is well known and documented. Today, visitors and locals who travel to the site to learn of its history see a well maintained and interpreted historic site, operated by the Battle of Franklin Trust. What many of us do know see, is how Carnton once appeared, prior to its restoration. In the 1978, a dedicated group of local citizens, determined to save Carnton and tell its story, formed the Historic Carnton Association. One of the key steps the Association occurred in the late 1980s; an archaeological investigation and in 1990, a Master Plan, drafted and presented by the graduate students from the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University. The slave dwelling (pictured below) archaeological work was formally completed by Steven Ruppel, a historic archaeologist for the state of Tennessee. In December 1986, Ruppel proposed an archaeological excavation within and around the slave dwelling to better understand the lives of the enslaved who were once owned by the McGavocks as well as to gain a greater picture for the reconstruction of the slave dwelling. By 1987, the archaeological work was well underway, the reconstruction and restoration of surrounding walls were finally completed, and in 1988, the two-storied slave dwelling opened to the public.

Image of the 1617 church, showcasing the reconstructed timber framed interior at Historic Jamestowne, March 2022. In 2019, the church reopened after two years of excavations and the installation of new flooring and engaging exhibits. The space is reflective of the original 1617 church and exhibit spaces interpret the original church and the significance of the First General Assembly.
Image courtesy of the author.

Like many historic sites being saved in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly plantations from the Antebellum era, the primary focus was on the mansion. Most grassroots historic organizations missed the mark to save plantation complex buildings, including slave dwellings. However, the board members of the Carnton Association recognized the importance early on of saving all the historic buildings, not just the mansion. Working in partnership with the Historic Carnton Association, Ruppel’s completed (1991) archaeological report served as a blueprint for the Association to incorporate the archaeological work in tandem with historic research and interpretation to inform visitors on why the slave dwelling mattered and continues to matter today. Visitors to Carnton currently learn more about slavery and the enslaved community than ever before. Archaeology, historic research, and further the interpretation of a historic site – Carnton – is a great local example of museum best practices.

The slave dwelling at Carnton in 1990. To restore and reconstruct the slave dwelling, extensive research into McGavock family records, local plantation records, and building records were necessary for comparative analysis of the historic built environment, archaeology, and interpretation. Image courtesy of the Williamson County Historical Society.

Our final (and local) example is not one of a museum or historic sites, rather a private residence, located in Fairview, TN. The Berkley-Barnes residence is a remarkable example of private citizens committed to the preservation of a historic site, all the while, creating an inviting living space in the 21st century. Today, it is a beautiful retreat, nestled within the rolling hills and green spaces we all love about Williamson County. However, relocating and then, reconstructing two log cabins, along with the construction of a connecting modern space, is not an easy task. For the Berkley-Barnes duo, they had their work cut out for them. First, finding an architect willing to see the same vision and then design it. Secondly, finding the right historic restoration construction company who have skilled craftsmen, dedicated and knowledgeable for the project. And thirdly, realizing time and financial commitment to see the reconstruction project through to the end. While this is a private residence, it’s a great example of a local reconstruction project that was and is doable with patience, professionalism, and preservation in mind.

2015 image showcasing Carnton’s two-story slave dwelling. Today, interpretive markers, located directly next to the slave dwelling, tell the realities for the enslaved community at Carnton.
Image courtesy of the Tennessean.

So, as we close our four-part series on the preservation of historic buildings and homes, I hope everyone not only enjoyed engaging with the content, but also, learned a little bit about the ins and outs of why preserving historic places matter to all of us. While each of us may not own a historic home or building, we all can do our part of advocate for the preservation of our architecture, our history, our green spaces, and our cultural resources. Former Executive Director of the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County Rudy Jordan once said, “we lose historic places one at a time.” Ms. Jordan is right. Without advocacy engagement, and an understanding of what it means to preserve, restore, rehabilitate, or reconstruct historic places, we can easily loose our cultural heritage.

Barnes reconstructed c1806 log cabin, Fairview, Tennessee. Image courtesy of McFarlin, Huitt, & Panvini Architects (MHP Architects), Nashville, Tennessee.

Join us on our journey of preserving all places and sharing all stories by becoming a member of the Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, TN today! If any of our readers have a historic home or building and are interested in learning more about your property’s history or concerned about its condition and how best to preserve it for generations to come, please reach out to me, Rachael Finch at Our preservation team would be eager to share our professional preservation services with you.



By Rachael Finch, Senior Director of Preservation & Education