A sight the likes of which hasn’t been seen for 200 years is rising out of the ground where George Washington spent his early, formative years.
A faithfully detailed facsimile of his family’s house is taking shape on the eastern shore of the Rappahannock River in Stafford County across from Fredericksburg, right where it stood during the first U.S. president’s youth.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Independence Day, the public is invited to see for themselves the George Washington Foundation’s progress on the “interpretive replica” it is building of the dwelling, one of the finest residences in the region during the mid-18th century.
The 1720s home’s below-ground remains, long thought lost, were found by a team led by archaeologists David Muraca and Philip Levy after years of work. International fanfare greeted news of that discovery on July 2, 2008.
Now, a replica based on their and colleagues’ research is under construction atop the river terrace across from Fredericksburg’s City Dock. Washington’s many fans have been dreaming of such a thing since the 1960s.
“When middle-schoolers get off the bus and look at this place, it will be standing exactly where it did—with the same footprint, the same form and the same materials. It’s amazing,” Mark Wenger, a veteran Virginia-based architectural historian, said of the replica. “Dave and his colleagues over the years have pulled together a documentary and graphical record and physical evidence that became the basis for what you see here.”
Monday’s special event at the national historic landmark, “The Fabulous Fourth at Ferry Farm,” will celebrate work on the replica house—which is now kicking into high gear—as well as the nation’s 240th birthday. There will be a noon concert, children’s activities, restoration experts, re-enactors, a 1:15 p.m. flag-retirement ceremony, singing by Anthony Campbell and remarks by Rep. Rob Wittman.
To get a sense of what’s involved in the painstaking project, guests are invited to converse with artisan Raymond Cannetti about stone masonry and building methods in 18th-century Virginia, as well as craftsmen from Blue Ridge Timberwrights, who will start raising the frame for the house next month. Other experts will demonstrate brickmaking and timber hewing and discuss Colonial trades, architecture and the Washingtons’ life at Ferry Farm.
Cannetti, a nationally known mason whose work includes the White House, Mount Vernon, Montpelier and the College of William & Mary’s Wren Building, has been toiling at Ferry Farm on and off since the spring of 2015. He and his fellow masons broke big boulders of Aquia sandstone, a now-scarce building material once quarried locally and widely used in the Mid-Atlantic, into blocks for the replica’s foundation. They discuss their techniques in videos on the foundation’s “Lives & Legacies” blog.
The rock was found during construction of Interstate 95’s Centreport Parkway interchange in central Stafford, harvested by a highway contractor and stockpiled at Ferry Farm by the foundation. Wielding hammers, mauls and wedges, Cannetti and colleagues split the stone into smaller pieces.
Aquia stone, which Stafford historian Jane Conner dubbed the “birthstone” of the White House and U.S. Capitol, hasn’t been worked by masons since the last quarry closed in the 1800s. But it was essential for Washington’s early government buildings and many notable local structures such as Fredericksburg’s Old Town Hall, Aquia Church in Stafford and the City Cemetery’s William Street gate.
At Ferry Farm, the beautifully dressed stone jackets the replica’s foot-thick concrete foundation, which is nearly complete.
The foundation was poured into place to knit together with 46 steel “helical piles” gently screwed into the earth up to 41 feet deep, anchoring the building without disturbing the remains of the Washington house.
“Although this foundation looks intrusive, it’s not,” Wenger explained as he visited to fine-tune grading for the replica’s riverfront facade. “... This stuff just sits on top of and kind of kisses that stone dust that was laid atop the historic grade. All of that resource still sleeps underneath what you see here.”
Normally, such steel piles are used only when factories are built on troublesome soils. Now, other historic sites are asking Ferry Farm how it is accomplishing this feat, foundation President William Garner said.
“We appreciate that we have a special opportunity to protect and secure the home of a founding father from the ground up,” he said. “It’s a ‘win–win’ in many ways. Working with our engineers and architect, we devised a means of locating the replica precisely where it was, protecting the resource, and giving guests access to the original house’s foundation through the interpretive structure.”
The innovative “high-tech cradle” was conceived by foundation leaders, coordinated by Trustee Chairman Ben Wafle, and staff in consultation with experts such as Wenger, who works in the Williamsburg office of Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker Architects.
The replica house will be centered atop the Washingtons’ stone cellar, with an entry stair beside the riverfront porch. The historic cellar’s stone walls marry neatly with the new foundation’s freshly cut blocks. Only a difference in the stones’ color distinguishes the two in a casual inspection.
Inside the cellar, a quarter of the historic fill has been left unexcavated for researchers to analyze far into the future using tools and techniques well advanced over today’s, chief archaeologist David Muraca said.
On top of the bluff, the house was impressive.
Fifty-three by 28 feet and a story and a half high, it would have been one of the area’s best dwellings, unusual for its era.
“This was a very substantial gentry house,” Wenger said. “In the probate records for Spotsylvania County’s Berkeley District at the time, there was nothing that even approached this. ... Very few houses had these central passages. If a house had one, you’re talking about someone who was really up close to the tip of the pyramid. So, socially, this house says a lot about who the Washingtons were—not that there weren’t financial challenges for them later on after Augustin’s death.”
“But George Washington was born into a gentry family. I’m sure he spent time in the woods, but he also grew up in the parlor. This house will put flesh and bones on that idea.”
Informed by decades of scholarship and craftsmanship, the foundation’s replica of the Washington farmstead will tell people a lot about how Washington came to view his world and understand people, Wenger said.
Muraca, who began investigating Ferry Farm 16 years ago today, said he’s excited by the prospect.
On Monday, visitors can chat with him, restoration mason Raymond Cannetti or timber framer John Mumaw about the effort.
The foundation anticipates the house will be under roof by this winter. That would include beaded weatherboard siding, exterior cornice, window sashes, paneled doors and the roof’s wood shingles.
The nonprofit has received about $35 million toward its $40 million goal for its Future of Our Past Campaign, publicly announced last spring. More than 25 percent of the total will be spent on the multi-year Phase 1 of Ferry Farm’s redevelopment, which calls for a new entrance, a maintenance building and replicas of the Washington house, kitchen, slave quarter and storehouse.
“We’re very gratified by the support the foundation has received from lots of people over the years toward achieving the goals of this campaign, which also include the restoration and refurnishing of Kenmore in Fredericksburg,” said Andrew Barry, the foundation’s vice president for institutional advancement.”