The northeast facade of the Fairfield manor house, as it looked shortly before it burned in 1897 (image courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society).
Why are you preserving these old foundations?
We get questions like this a lot, and they are good questions. Why do we take remnants of the past, whether bits of paper, treasured heirlooms, crumbling brick, or our grandparents stories, and carefully curate them, study them, and protect them from decay or disappearing entirely? The answer is quite simple- learning about the past better prepares us for the present and the future.
But we must make choices about what to preserve. These challenges are faced by many museums, old houses, and preservation groups across the country. Since Fairfield had the misfortune to burn down, we are not faced with the same challenges as places like Menokin where a quarter of the house still stands, but requiring constant care and significant attention; or Montpelier where they took the bold step of removing later wings of the house in order to reveal and meticulously restore the residence the Madisons knew; but we have challenges nonetheless. How do you make sense of an historic landscape that has disappeared almost entirely beneath the farmer’s plow? How do you impress upon visitors the significance of a place without a physical presence to refer to? Our solution: preserve the small portion of the manor house that remains because it provides a sense of place to visitors, and use it as a launching point for them to engage with Fairfield’s storied past.
What stories do these bricks tell?
The grand Fairfield manor was built around 1694. For nearly 100 years it stood in quiet testimony to the power and influence of the Burwell family, the centerpiece of a massive, complex and profitable designed landscape. It clearly conveyed the source of this family’s wealth and knowledge- a foundation built on the profitable leaves of the noxious tobacco plant and the backs of enslaved African men and women. But then Fairfield endured for another century as the residence of less pretentious families, as the nerve center of a much reduced farm, and as the home for at least one former slave whose opinions on the previous two centuries of plantation life we would love to know. When it burned in 1897, Fairfield was already part of a growing nostalgic movement to honor and preserve the past, albeit with a somewhat narrow focus.
As the 20th century roared past, we broadened our interests in the past, and our understanding of how it informs and influences us. So Fairfield becomes much more than a mere pile of rubble- it is tangible reminder of the complexity of the historic landscape, and an engaging portal through which we can input our myriad questions about the past and sift carefully for answers as they emerge, fragment by fragment.
How do you preserve 300 year old foundations?
With questions in hand we begin excavating, but as we uncover fragile brick we have to consider the impact of our actions. These walls are made of brick and mortar produced on site in the 1690s and early 1700s. They stood for two centuries, weathering and wearing with the passage of time. Fire engulfed the manor, consuming the wood elements and destabilizing the remainder. Another 100 years of further exposure to the elements- trees and vines snaking their way between bricks, ice and freezing rain cracking bricks and mortar where they lay, especially interior bricks that were never intended to be exposed. And now we are slowly and carefully removing tons of brick and mortar fragments that filled the building’s cellars and covered the foundations, exposing the worn remnants of this magnificent manor house. Our challenge is to preserve what is left, while allowing these important parts of our past to serve as teaching tools.
Working with experts in historic masonry, we are learning how to make authentic lime-based mortar that will work with these soft hand-made brick, rather than against them like modern Portland cement. We are learning how to clean out and repoint deteriorated mortar joints so that they function again as intended. And we are learning where we can preserve and consolidate original bricks in place and where we need to remove material, either degraded original masonry, or poorly surviving late 19th-century repairs. A big challenge and important preservation question for us to consider is how much of the foundation do we try to build back- whether to ensure its preservation or enhance its presentation to the public? And the corollary to this, how much money and effort are we willing to put into this work, knowing the other challenges and questions that we have? This workshop is not designed to answer all of these queries, but it is an opportunity for us to talk about them, to consider different solutions, and to take action to begin the work of preserving the ruins of Fairfield. We are up to the challenge, and we hope that you will join us on this journey.