Virginia is a house-museum mecca. It’s the home of Colonial Williamsburg, Stratford Hall, and Monticello. What could another museum add to the state’s cultural heritage infrastructure?
The Menokin Foundation has a distinctive contribution: A novel preservation project of the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a member of the Second Continental Congress and a Declaration of Independence signer. Lee’s house, a spectacularly decayed structure built in 1769, is “not a ruin in the classic sense,” Sarah Dillard Pope, the foundation’s executive director, said. It does, however, require extensive care: Around 2006, key structural posts and beams fell into the basement. In 2000, the foundation erected a metal shed, akin to a carport, to protect the structure from overhead precipitation. The interior remained exposed to the elements.
Luckily, the house may be getting life support as early as next spring. The Menokin Foundation selected Boston-based firm Machado Silvetti to spearhead the preservation of the structure and its conversion into a museum. In its parts and pieces, Pope maintains, the house complements, not competes, with other Virginia historic sites.
A primary goal of the project is to create a historical narrative that integrates the site and its surroundings. The Menokin House sits on a 500-acre property with hiking trails and waterways for recreational boating. Project manager and architect Ned Goodell said that the overarching goal is to “keep the project free of nostalgia” while maintaining “a healthy respect for the history of the place.” The team “didn’t want to overpower the site’s aura with our architectural intervention.”
Interventions will open up the space and re-create interior volumes that were lost when the structure collapsed in 2006. Goodell detailed the functionality of the project’s four elements: the ruin, the steel armature, the liner, and the glass enclosure. The ruin is resurrected and stabilized with a steel armature. This allows the ruin to be displayed and experienced in three dimensions, “without losing the quality of the ruin.” Goodell cited the Cathedral Ruins in Hamar, Norway, as an inspiration for what the design team and the foundation envision for Menokin.
The structure’s original millwork was removed and preserved in the 1960s. Today, the advanced state of decay leaves no remaining surface to display the millwork. A liner will allow that millwork to be remounted and viewed. The liner lends programmatic opportunities, as well. A fabric scrim will be mounted onto the liner to create a projection surface for images and video. This could be incorporated into the museum’s educational programming, or used for special events onsite.
Protecting the house from Virginia’s four seasons with a glass enclosure presented a challenge. Hanging off of the armature, the glass enclosure must safeguard the ruins from dramatic temperature and humidity changes while providing adequate durability and transparency. Using the climate control systems of art museums as a guide, the team initially considered a three-layer system with four glass panes to provide tight climate control. The system proved too costly, so the team created a sparer design of laminated glass that reconciles a greater interior temperature and moisture range with maximum transparency. “You don’t want the glass to be prominent, but the glass should be elegantly detailed when you get close,” Goodell explained. The glass envelope limits the type of artifacts that may be displayed in the structure, but allows the historic millwork to take center stage.
Currently, the project is in the design and development phase. If the foundation’s board approves, construction will begin spring 2016.