On the eve of 2019 archaeologists and architects are remaking the inside of a century-old church to highlight and honor the seminal events of 400 years ago.
Jamestown Island’s Memorial Church, built in 1906, stands over the fort on the bank of the James River, as a monument to the churches that were built on the same spot long before by colonists.
The first church was home to one of the most significant developments in American history: The first representative government on now-American soil convened within its walls in 1619.
The current church will soon be home to exhibits that showcase all that has occurred in Jamestown in the last 400 years.
The American Evolution 2019 Commemoration — a statewide collaboration intended to draw tourists and elucidate world-shaping events of 1619 like the representative government, the arrival of the first Africans and the large-scale arrival of women to Virginia — kicked off last month.
In light of the 2019 Commemoration, the staff at Jamestown Rediscovery are preparing the site of the first permanent English colony in North America to highlight and honor those formative, 400-year-old moments for the 2019 season.
“What Jamestown has that nowhere else has is context. You can literally stand on the spot where Pocahontas married John Rolfe,” said Michael Lavin, director of Collections & Conservation for Jamestown Rediscovery. “You can stand on the spot where Angela, the first enslaved African, lived. You can stand on the spot where Governor Berkeley said, ‘Here, shoot me,’ during Bacon’s Rebellion.”
The Jamestown Rediscovery team has partnered with Stemann Pease Architecture to remake the inside of the Memorial Church into an exhibit space to elucidate the events of 1619 and showcase the findings the archaeologists have uncovered during two years of excavation.
They plan to have their designs implemented by April 2019.
During their digs archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of the previous churches — one built in 1617 and another in the 1640s. They also believe they have unearthed the remains of Sir George Yeardley, who served as Virginia’s governor between 1618 and 1621.
“Now it is Stemann and Pease’s job to relay that to the public in a thoughtful way,” Lavin said. “Archaeologists are really good at deconstructing stuff, but not as good at putting things back.”
The architects’ plan is to remake the interior of the church in a way that is interactive and informative.
One of their ideas is to contract a timber framer to recreate a portion of the wooden 1619 church inside the Memorial Church, illustrating its function to guests while also serving as a place for interpretive programming. The goal is to be as historically accurate as possible given the information the archaeologists have to work with.
Lavin and archaeologist Dave Givens have visited the United Kingdom to see contemporary buildings to model the designs for the timber church. The display will also follow the boundaries of the cobble and clay remnants of the original timber church uncovered in digs.
Glass panels along the southern wall will give a glimpse of the 1640s church’s foundation and monitors hung on the walls will be filled with information.
The Knight’s Tombstone will also be moved to its original location, and will be cased in glass to keep it both visible and protected.
They also plan to restore the church’s choir with pews and wood and brick flooring, to model how they believe the 1617 church once looked.
“We were interested in finding the exact location of the choir of the 1617 church, where in July and August of 1619 the first representative government in the English New World met,” Lavin said.
The church’s chancel — the holiest site — will be lined with clay tiles and bounded by a wooden wall.
Pease said the exhibit and flooring is designed to be removed after the 2019 Commemoration, if the Jamestown Rediscovery team decide to start digging in the church once again.
“This is pretty unusual for what any architect typically does- we put something in the ground, it’s more or less permanent,” Edwin Pease said. “This thing floats, it floats on that stone dust, so if in 15-20 years Michael and his crew decide they need to get down in there — which they easily could because there’s a lot more archaeology to be done — it can all be dismantled relatively easily. It presents some design challenges for us that have been really fun to work through.”
The key to their efforts, Lavin said, is to present history in a way that guests can easily understand and digest.
“When we give tours or are talking to visitors, it’s very easy for an archaeologist to look at that cobblestone and clay foundation and say, ‘Oh, there’s a timber frame close-studded building, can’t you see that?’” Lavin said. “For the public, they’re looking at a line of cobbles and they struggle with making the connection with the building on top of that.”
Likewise, the architects said they plan to lean on the expertise of the archaeologists as they make and implement their designs.
“The archaeologists are the smartest people we get to work with,” David Stemann said. “It’s really collaborative with these guys. It’s fun.”
Lavin said he has one final idea for the church, but it’s one visitors won’t see.
“They put a time capsule in in 1906, and we might do the same,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story said “Known as the House of Burgesses, the first representative government on now-American soil convened within its walls in 1619.”
This statement, which came from the National Park Service, is incorrect. While the first legislative assembly did meet in 1619, it was not called the House of Burgesses. That was formed separately decades later.