A few weeks ago, I participated in Menokin’s Ghost Structure Workshop. Though I could only stay for the first two days, as I had to return to school for my last final, it was an absolutely fantastic experience. Not only did I get to spend time at Menokin, a site fascinating to me for its unique approach to preservation and presentation, but I also got to use a number of the skills and concepts I have learned over the past two years in UVA’s Master’s of Architectural History program. I came away from my time at Menokin with a much better understanding of eighteenth-century construction techniques, slave cabin typologies, and museum interpretation strategies. This knowledge will be very valuable to me as I begin my career in the heritage field.
The first day, my co-participants and I received an introduction to the project, crew, and tools. Because the goal of the workshop was to erect the cabin in just five days, we utilized a combination of historic and modern techniques and devices. The project was based in historic processes, with a wooden frame fastened by pegged mortise and tenon joints, but the bulk of the wood was cut using power tools so that we could finish on time. This decision demonstrated the importance of balancing exciting ideals and necessary practicality in preservation work and at historic sites. The Ghost Structure Workshop was well-balanced in my opinion. We learned about historic tools and used them for most of the tasks, but modern tools were used for the major pieces that would have taken too much time.
By the end of the day, we had the frame of the floor in place. We also spent a great deal of time making pegs for the joints using drawknives on sawhorses. Peg-making looked so easy when our excellent crew demonstrated, but it was so much harder than it looked. A theme of the experience was that everything looked so easy for the professional crew, but it was not so easy for my co-participants and myself!
On day two, we got to lay the floor of the cabin. We laid floorboards perpendicular to the joists below and hammered two nails into the surface of each board, tacking it firmly into these joists. We had to be careful that each floorboard was tight against its neighbor to prevent any gaps in the floor, using chisels to hold the boards together while nailing. This was very satisfying work. Over the course of a few hours, we saw the collection of timbers and pegs we had produced on day one turn into a real floor and it became possible to imagine what the final product would look like by the end of the week.
I really enjoyed my experience at Menokin. I learned a great deal about the construction process in the eighteenth century, which has been helpful to me so far in my summer internship at Colonial Williamsburg, but I also learned a great deal about the social history of eighteenth-century construction work at Menokin. The structure we were erecting is a reconstruction of enslaved worker housing, which would have been built by the enslaved laborers themselves. Building the Ghost Structure was really hard work, even with the aid of modern tools, which were of course not available in the eighteenth century. Working on the Ghost Structure this week made me think hard about the people who built the original cabin on this site and so many others across the country. The Ghost Structure is a powerful building that conveys some of the important and sobering history of American slavery, and I hope it will be a really useful interpretation and education tool for the Menokin Foundation going forward. Thank you to everyone at Menokin and to the amazing Salvagewrights building crew for making this experience possible!