Historic Jamestown Church Tower

Restoration mason Ray Cannetti studies the newly exposed brickwork in the front arch and door of the 1600s Jamestown church tower, which has revealed both original details and clues to later repair work that have been hidden for more than century. (Joe Fudge / Daily Press / June 26, 2014)

One of English America’s most iconic early colonial structures may have dodged a potentially disastrous cold-weather wrecking ball this past winter when near-record freezing temperatures caused new lime mortar joints to fail instead of splitting off large sections of what had been  a cement-coated brick wall.

But not until the restoration team who carried out the work last year resumed their $220,000 stabilization and conservation campaign a few weeks ago did the timeliness of their effort to save the endangered late-1600s Jamestown church tower become fully apparent.

Historic Jamestown Church Tower

The historic 1600s Jamestown church tower has been surrounding by scaffolding during a masonry stabilization and preservation campaign conducted by Colonial Williamsburg and Preservation Virginia. (Joe Fudge / Daily Press / June 26, 2014)

“At first we were upset. You’re disappointed when you see repair work that has failed. But then we realized that it did exactly what it was supposed to do,” said Matt Webster, director of historic architectural resources at Colonial Williamsburg.

“If that cement had still been there, the damage caused by all the moisture trapped behind it would have been considerable. I think we would have lost whole sections of wall. But it was the mortar joints that failed and not the brick.”

Undertaken by Colonial Williamsburg in partnership with Preservation Virginia — which has owned the historic property since the 1890s — the first phase of the rescue project initiated in the spring of 2013 focused on numerous critical problems, including missing mortar, crumbling bricks and a wild outbreak of vegetation growing inside and atop the tower’s walls.

So severe was the deterioration that Webster had discovered the previous December that — aided by $100,000 from the state as well as $120,000 from other donors — the Historic Jamestowne partners erected scaffolding just a few months later and began work at a pace that was both careful and urgent.

Much of the damage they encountered reached back to the tons of Portland cement that had been troweled across the top and interior of the tower beginning in the 1890s by a misguided attempt to protect them, Webster said.

As recently as the 1960s, most of the succeeding repair campaigns had employed the same strategy, unknowingly trapping so much water behind the cement that — when more than 10 tons was finally removed this past year — the top third of the tower’s wall was revealed to be riddled with crumbling brick and extensive fractures caused by more than a century of hidden moisture and freezing problems.    

“Looking back now, we only had months to do something,” Webster said, describing the large sections of masonry that might have been lost to the extreme cold snap experienced this past winter.

“So we did it at the right time.”

Look for more on the Jamestown church tower preservation project in an upcoming edition of the Daily Press.

-- Mark St. John Erickson

Saving the 1600s Jamestown church tower

This late 1800s view of the Jamestown church tower shows the structure as it looked shortly after it was acquired by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, now called Preservation Virginia. The tower is known to have been in ruins since the early 1800s. (Courtesy of Preservation Virginia / September 10, 1996)