Saving the historic 1600s church tower at Jamestown

If you've ever felt an old building draw you deep into the past, then you probably know something about the evocative power of the 17th-century church tower at Jamestown.

Part ruin, part relic and part wizened survivor, this impressive pile of bricks ranks as the only structure remaining above ground from the original capital of Virginia. And even people who don't know its story can feel the pull of its antiquity when they approach it from the Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center.

Long before the bicentennial celebration in 1807, visitors to the old town site and its only visible marker would stop to pay homage to the past and the sacrifices of the pioneering settlers who founded English-speaking America on the island in 1607.

Artist after artist made pilgrimages, too, drawn by the sublime romance of the solitary ruin and its unspoken but palpable connection to the nation's beginnings. Their sketches and watercolors show the crumbling tower tangled up in a jungle of foliage -- and when the earliest known photo of the tower was taken in 1893 the pile was still cloaked in the vines that made it look so ancient if not eternal.

That's the year the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities acquired the tower and 22.5 acres of surrounding property, after which it cleared the structure of vines and strengthened it with iron rods and a cement cap.

But not until this year -- after numerous previous restoration campaigns, including the most recent one undertaken nearly 50 years ago -- has the tower been given the kind of attention it's getting now in a $150,000 multi-year study, repointing and rebuilding project.

Undertaken by Colonial Williamsburg in partnership with the APVA -- now known as Preservation Virginia -- the first phase of the program has focused on numerous problems, including missing mortar, crumbling bricks and a wild outbreak of vegetation growing inside and atop its walls.

The campaign is intended not only to correct these ills but also insure that the landmark structure survives into the next century.

"It's 300 years old," said Matthew Webster, director of historic architectural resources at Colonial Williamsburg, following an extensive examination of the tower's many problems late last year.

"It has every right to be a little cranky."

Look for my upcoming story on the tower later this week to get an update on the work's progress.

-- Mark St. John Erickson


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