December 3, 2014

Eighteenth-Century House Ruin to Be Restored…With Glass

  • By: Meghan O'Connor
Menokin current structure

photo by: Menokin Foundation

The Menokin Foundation aims to rehabilitate Menokin, home of Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lightfoot Lee, using structural glass.

What some people see when they look at Menokin is a collapsed house, an old ruin, a testament to the perils of ignoring preservation. What the staff and Board at Menokin see, however, is a cutting-edge preservation opportunity.

The Menokin Foundation does not want to restore the house to its original condition. Instead, the Foundation believes Menokin is more valuable to the public in pieces. Menokin was home to Declaration of Independence signer, Francis Lightfoot Lee. The land was given to Lee and his wife Rebecca Tayloe by his father-in-law as a wedding gift. The house was built around 1769.

Menokin pre collapsed house

photo by: Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service

The main house at Menokin, shown here pre-collapse, was built around 1769.

Located in Warsaw, Virginia, just an hour outside of Richmond, Virginia, and a 2-hour drive from Washington, D.C., Menokin is a 500-acre site rich with history. Before Menokin was even built, the Rappahannock Indian tribe once settled on its shores. Captain John Smith passed by the site while exploring the region. The plantation also happens to be an ecological goldmine. It is an important habitat for bald eagles and part of the Rappahanock River Valley Wildlife Refuge.

In 1971, Menokin was designated a National Historic Landmark. At that time, the house had already fallen into disrepair and its roof had collapsed. By the time the Menokin Foundation acquired the property in 1994, some walls had fallen in, overgrowth covered the brick and wood, and a tree was growing through the back steps.

Incredibly, about 80% of Menokin’s original materials survived, including much of the interior woodwork. Martin King, founding President of the Menokin Foundation, saw a unique preservation opportunity -- that Menokin could be a more informative teaching tool disassembled.

Aerial view of Menokin

photo by: Menokin Foundation

Menokin is a 500-acre site in Warsaw, Virginia, with 250 years of history and an abundance of ecological resources.

Forgoing a traditional reconstruction, the Foundation built a protective roof over the ruins in 2000. Without a more substantive supporting structure, however, Menokin was in danger of further deterioration. Charles Phillips, an architect working with the Foundation on the removal, documentation, and conservation of Menokin’s collapsed timbers and masonry, started to explore structural glass.

By rebuilding the missing walls using structural glass, the house would be more stable, but still provide a unique learning experience in line with King’s vision. Glass recreates the memory of what was there, while allowing visitors to look inside the walls and learn from Menokin’s pieces.

“Glass is a perfect solution for our philosophy,” Executive Director of the Foundation, Sarah Dillard Pope, says, “where we want Menokin the ruins, and what remains of it, to speak for itself.”

Menokin rendering overview

photo by: Machado and Silvetti Associates

The Foundation plans to build a glass shell, shown in this rendering, around the Menokin ruin.

Dubbed the “Glass House Project,” the Foundation floated the idea around the preservation community. Pope says, “We started getting really positive responses to it. We got some raised eyebrows, believe me, but we came to [the] consensus that this was an approach worth pursuing.”

To design the Glass House Project, the Foundation hired world-renowned architecture firm Machado and Silvetti Associates in 2012. Designing projects ranging from an addition to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art to the expansion of the Getty Villa, Machado and Silvetti focus on creating contemporary and innovative designs that merge with historic contexts.

Pope says, “They tease the spirit of the historic place out in a modern way, [and] that’s exactly what we wanted.”

Menokin interior rendering

photo by: Machado and Silvetti Associates

Structural glass recreates the memory of Menokin while allowing visitors to learn from its parts and pieces.

The Foundation is currently developing and implementing Phase 1 of the Glass House Project -- to build a glass shell around the current remaining structure.

Menokin’s innovation does not just stop at glass. The Foundation’s ultimate goal for the site is to be an internationally known learning and teaching center. In a departure from many historic house museum models, Menokin does not want to focus solely on one story or one time period. The site will not just be a colonial relic, but a place that can have modern implications for, and showcase in a revolutionary way, preservation, history, architecture, and natural resources.

Menokin group class

photo by: Menokin Foundation

Menokin runs a variety of preservation and architecture related trainings. Shown here, in Menokin’s wine cellar, are participants of a 2-day “All About Lime Mortar” training.

They plan to use the rehabilitation of the house as an educational opportunity, too. As Pope explains, Menokin is “an ongoing project, it’s never going to be static, and it has many chapters and that right now the main chapter, the main character, is the house.”

They plan to showcase every aspect of the design and construction of the glass, including posting videos of progress, hosting field schools, and sharing any information to the preservation community about lessons learned during the process.

As Pope sums up, “We are a small organization with a very big vision. But through careful planning and working with stellar partners over the last 20 years, we have a feasible and fundable project that we hope will help redefine the historic house museum model. ”

Note: Meghan O'Connor worked with Menokin on the museum’s historical interpretation as part of a graduate school class.

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