Engineering a Ruin
By William Richards
Menokin, a rare surviving example of eighteenth-century domestic architecture in Virginia, is slowly emerging from its felled state. In the last year, its wine cellar has been excavated and its foundation shored-up. Last fall, the property’s entire 500-acre spread received a conservation easement from then-Governor Tim Kaine. And, the Menokin Foundation continues to open up the site to conservation workshops, music festivals, and a summer teacher’s institute. Once the home of Rebecca Tayloe and Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the building has largely fallen apart but is still discernible as a structure. If the Menokin Foundation succeeds, however, that structure will be reassembled using as much of the original fabric as possible. More importantly, the missing parts of the building would be re-constructed and ultimately encased in glass, effectively redefining how restoration is done on similar sites.
The ruins sit at the head of what was once a terraced estate that overlooked Menokin Bay and, to the south, Cat Point Creek on Virginia’s Northern Neck. After the Lees died, both in 1797, ownership of the property passed to her family (whose familial homestead Mount Airy is just up the road), and then to four different owners over the next 70 years. The Omohundro family, which had owned it since 1872, ultimately ceded everything to Martin Kirwan King, a Northern Neck native and former Exxon executive, and the Menokin Foundation after nearly 40 years of vacancy in 1995.
Many of the extant parts of Menokin are stored at its conservation center, named for King, and include hundreds of feet of neatly organized, original interior woodwork that was saved by the Omohundros. Next door is the conservation barn, in which 1600 additional pieces of the building have been tagged and arranged. Some of the recovered timbers are severely rotted and seemingly beyond repair, but have been carefully laid out for restoration with epoxy resin to stabilize the rotted members (essentially cementing the cavity in place). Once they are strengthened, the Menokin Foundation hopes that they can be put back together behind glass as a way to show how they were put together in the first place.
“Menokin is about process. When it is completed, it still will be about how any eighteenth century mansion house was built and finished,” notes the architectural historian Camille Wells who has done extensive research on the house.
“It’s like an enormous cutaway drawing and vastly more instructive and evocative in many ways than it would be if had survived intact,” said Wells. “Not, of course, that anyone involved with it is glad it fell into ruins.”
But, the epoxy resin method of shoring-up the pieces of those ruins is being phased out as it presents a long term problem in the current preservation climate. “Epoxy resin is partially reversible in theory, but in practice it chemically changes the object,” explains John Lee, whose conservation firm John Greenwalt Lee Company is working on the project. He and the foundation are moving towards the use of carbon fiber to stabilize the timbers, as it is more aligned with the material properties of wood, itself. “Wood is polymer-reinforced fibers, and that’s all it is. Carbon fiber is no different. It’s tremendously strong and light, and it’s infinitely conformable.”
The added benefit, explains Sarah Pope, Executive Director of the Menokin Foundation, is that carbon fiber, which resembles a thick, woven screen is removable if a better method comes along later. Wood rot is, of course, a bad situation. If it has occurred in most of a given wood sample, historic or not, it’s usually au fait accompli. Carbon fiber, like epoxy resin, can suspend that process and strengthen what’s left but, unlike epoxy resin, it can be disengaged from the timbers, the most damaged of which is still a prized asset. “People think we’re crazy to try and save these pieces,” says Pope, “But, the point is to keep as much of the original fabric as possible so we can use glass to show you how the house worked.”
Glass is the key to Pope and Menokin’s long term plan for the structure, and an uncommon material in the world of structural restoration. The idea is that parts of the building lost to weather or time could be reconstructed in glass, offering an idea of the original structure, and the currently half-formed or half-rotted parts could be seen in their original places in the building. Instead of replacing what was missing with new materials, period pieces, and conjecture, Menokin hopes to lay the building bare as a workshop for conservators, restorers, and preservationists.
The challenge for Menokin, and as Pope argues, any ruined or partially standing structure, is how to compose a complete picture without compromising the authenticity of the enterprise and respecting what you don’t know. “Whatever we don’t have and whatever we can’t document, we’re not going to put it back. The beauty of Menokin is that what we have, we know exactly where it went. For everything else, that’s where the glass comes in.”
As a larger teaching tool, Menokin would offer the public something to consider and, hopefully, a critical tool to assess any historic site that has been restored. “We are trying to be as truthful as possible,” Pope goes on, “For buildings similar in size and condition to Menokin, we think it will have an impact. One thing we’ve seen in this field lately is a real attempt to make things truer and come to life. People see through conjecture, and just aren’t interested in it any more.”
The Glass House Project, as it is called, is the future of Menokin and possibly the key to architectural restoration as institutions strive for greater verity in their interpretive missions. Lee agrees, in his nearly 40 years as furniture maker and conservator, that preservation has come a long way since the early 1970s. “Preservation was off-the-shelf solutions then. What we would never do to our car or a piece of furniture, we would do to buildings and call it ‘preservation,’ and it’s nothing of the sort.”
Charles Phillips, AIA who consulted on the project echoes this sentiment. “One of the things we bemoaned for years is that we often see buildings in their original condition that are fixed up, painted up, and suddenly none of the surfaces are the same any more. We need to rethink the way we approach buildings as artifacts, and the use of glass at Menokin will complement the structure. It will make it understandable without taking away all the advantages it has of being a ruin.” Making the ruin understandable, however, is a return to the central concern of Menokin and the Glass House Project: authenticity. The reason why glass works so well is its transparency, and its potential to be suggestive as well as substitutive. If Menokin can become the sum of its original parts again, glass would celebrate that accomplishment and, in a practical sense, protect those parts.
Philips took his cue from several places including the Menil Collection in Houston, particularly its Byzantine fresco chapel. The walls of the chapel are formed with panels of frosted, translucent glass and tie-rods that give the space reference points and a sense of volume. Floating above are the transplanted frescoes, themselves, which are snugly fit into a specially made shell.
It was the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York, however, that led Phillips and Lee to Tim Macfarlane who engineered the computer company’s prominent entrance and main staircase. The glass cube is noticeably different from its curtain-walled neighbors in appearance and for the fact that its glass is essentially structural. DuPont SentryGlas Plus (SGP), a laminating interlayer that bolsters the weather and impact resistance of the material, is seen everywhere now, from sky bridges to sky boxes, and from elevators casings to atrium ceilings. The achievement of the Apple Store, however, is the use of SGP in an enclosed, freestanding structure totally composed of glass.
While he is unsure how or if SGP is right for Menokin, Macfarlane explaines that, “Material knowledge is always progressive and, in a historical context, you are more aware that technologies develop as a way to solve problems.
Problems will always keep re-emerging and Menokin is an extraordinary challenge that’s neither been attempted, nor thought about. The thing that’s most interesting is that you’ve got absolutely dedicated people, and I became infected by their commitment. They’re a group of people that you rarely find in that industry, because it’s so formalized in many ways. So, finding genuinely committed and thinking craftsmen and designers is an exciting experience.”
Craftsmanship unifies the Menil chapel, the Apple cube, and Menokin, which all point to the relationship between material and context. In all three of these cases, this relationship is in service of a single object, be it a fresco, an entrance pavilion, or an historic home. But, Menokin is unique among them for the special kind of craftsmanship that must be employed in restoring its timbers and the narrative that those timbers reflect. It’s certainly a history of the Tayloes and the Lees, two very old Virginia families, but it’s also a narrative about a physical artifact, how it was conceived, constructed, and survived.
Mark Twain’s 1877 essay on Francis Lightfoot Lee is dedicated to the patriot’s good nature. “He dealt in no shams; he had no ostentations of dress or equipage. Mr. Lee defiled himself with no juggling, or wire-pulling, or begging.” Through Twain’s account, we learn that he had a decent library, enjoyed walnuts and port on his front porch, and seemed to be an affable, if reticent, member of the Colonial gentry whose accomplishments as a statesman are only now coming to light. Lee may have passed on, but his house is still very much present. Menokin’s timbers are not in the best shape, but they are part of a contributing structure to this region and, uniquely, they are evidence of that structure’s life. In describing Lee, Twain noted that “His course was purity itself,” to which Menokin’s course may also be ascribed, making this ordinary structure a rather extraordinary, living artifact.
William Richards is the Editor-in-Chief of Inform: Architecture and Design in the Mid-Atlantic.