Among the recent discoveries were some fragments of the original building’s chair rails. During the renovation of the house in the 1920s, these pieces of wood had been reused in the construction of a new wall. A cheaply constructed building wouldn’t have had chair rails at all, or any sort of moldings to protect the plaster from furniture.
“Chair rails would have been much fancier in the George Wythe House or the Robert Carter House or the homes of other gentry,” said Jenn Wilkoski, Colonial Williamsburg’s Shirley and Richard Roberts Architectural Historian. “But these were nice enough for a marketable rental property.”
Why would the pro-slavery trustees of the Bray School pay for such niceties? Wilkoski speculated that the house wasn’t built to be a school. It just happened to have been built — and available — when the school’s trustees were looking for a place to rent in 1760.
Other surviving pieces of the original building also indicate it wasn’t low quality. Normally, when a building is moved, as was this one in the late 1920s, its chimneys are destroyed since it’s easier to build a new chimney than to move one. In this case, a chimney that was situated between two wings went with the house. And the chimney bricks are set in an attractive Flemish bond pattern and decorated with glazed brick.
Another marketable feature was the building’s central passage, which wouldn’t have been included in lesser buildings. Central passages had long been included in gentry homes, and by the 1760s they were becoming more common in those of the middling class.
“It’s not a bad building at all,” Webster said. “There’s a hierarchy of space and nice details, and we see no sign of poor conditions like a roof leak.”
Why, then, did Nicholas complain about the building as “untenantable”? Despite its quality, the building was very small for 30 children and for a teacher to live there. “His letter was referencing the space, not the conditions,” Webster explained. Nicholas’ complaint was part of a dispute with the Bray School over the increased rent at a new and larger property.
The research will inform the building’s restoration as the Foundation moves toward opening it to the public in 2024. Instead of having to guess what the building’s windows looked like, researchers can match a surviving window sash. They can study the chimney to determine what the brickwork on the house looked like and even what color the mortar was. And instead of copying other houses’ rooflines, they can see the remains of this one’s in a surviving partition wall.
Occasionally, researchers step back from all their new discoveries and just imagine what went on at this house. Chabra pointed to a newel post at the base of the staircase.
“It’s not the most beautiful piece of wood,” he said, “but almost every person who has been in the building, from the Black students in the 18th century to the William & Mary students in the 20th century, has rubbed their hands on this.”