Colonial Williamsburg opens new exhibition coffeehouse

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November 17, 2009

2:08 AM

Walking into the Daily Grind, the overwhelming scent of coffee combines with lounge music and comfy chairs to give off the modern coffeehouse feel. The newest coffeehouse in Williamsburg on Duke of Gloucester Street, however, has a very different atmosphere.

At R. Charlton Coffeehouse — the first exhibition building in Colonial Williamsburg in 50 years — visitors tour the original building as if they were back in 1765. The coffeehouse will open on Nov. 20.

“We will begin by re-enacting the Stamp Act protest,” Communication Manger for Colonial Williamsburg Jim Bradley said. “George Mercer was there from England to collect, and he was met by this angry mob. Lucky for him, the royal governor was sitting on the porch of the coffeehouse.”

The royal governor at the time, Francis Fauquier, escorted Mercer to safety, and Mercer resigned from his post the next day. This historic event will kick off the opening ceremony by emphasizing the significance of the coffeehouse during the pre-Revolutionary Era.

“The coffeehouse was not just a coffeehouse,” Bradley said. “It was styled on English coffeehouses in the time that were very high-style eating and drinking establishments, as opposed to taverns.”

During the late 1760s the coffeehouse was the center for political discussion, business transactions and a forum to share news from England.

While the historical significance of the coffeehouse extends far beyond the serving of food and drinks, part of the interactive tour will include sampling the cuisine.

“During the interpretive experience, the guest will be introduced to taste and smell,” Bradley said. “You will be able to sample tea, coffee and chocolate — the tastes of the time.”

On Nov. 22, normal interactive tours of the Coffeehouse begin. The open houses on Friday, Saturday and Sunday will include samplings of old-fashioned beverages, although drinks and food are not available for purchase at the coffeehouse.

While other exhibitions in Colonial Williamsburg refer to history in the past tense, tours in the coffeehouse will be conducted as though visitors and living in the 18th century.

“When you enter the coffeehouse, you will be entered into 1766,” Bradley said. “It is an interactive plan that we haven’t tried before, but what we are trying to do is place the guest in that time and place.”

This new approach to historic interpretation will allow for guests to have a broader experience of what daily life was like during the colonial time period. Although knowledge of the coffeehouse has existed for many years, it was not until the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation received a $5 million donation from the Mars Foundation that reconstruction began.

“During the archaeological dig, we found about half a million archaeological pieces in the site which gave us information about what existed in the house,” Communications Manager for Colonial Williamsburg Barbara Brown said.

The coffeehouse is built on the original 18th century brick foundation. From that foundation, the house has been rebuilt to include authentic furnishings.

“Furnishing did not start until the third week of October,” Bradley said. “Now we are furnished, and interpretive training has been going on inside the building for a week or two in preparation for the grand opening this Friday.”

Friday’s opening is free to all visitors, and to students of the College of William and Mary with a student ID.
“[A] William and Mary ID functions just like a visitor’s pass, so come out and enjoy,” Bradley said.

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