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Recreated Slave Quarter Rises from the Past

Roof being installed on the reconstructed Mulberry Row slave dwelling.

This winter, as part of the exciting multi-year effort to restore Monticello to its appearance in Jefferson’s time, we are recreating a log dwelling that likely once housed members of the enslaved Hemings family. The recreated 12’ x 14’ log quarter is being reconstructed on Mulberry Row, “the main street” of the Monticello plantation, using traditional building techniques. The new building will help return the physical presence of slavery to Monticello’s landscape and expand our ability to tell the story of how Monticello’s enslaved people lived and worked along Mulberry Row.

Currently, the log walls have been constructed and the roof has been framed. This week craftsmen are installing the log chimney and roofing. Because historic log chimneys often tumbled down or caught fire, they were typically built using simple construction techniques and insubstantial materials like small logs or sticks.  In this case, the chimney logs are held together with a traditional saddle notch joint. To ensure that the reconstructed chimney does not collapse, we are reinforcing the joints with screws. Small locust logs are also being used because locust is a hard, dense wood that will endure being exposed to the weather. Once the logs are installed, a mixture of clay, lime, and sand called “daubing” will be used to fill the spaces between them. The daub will also be used to infill the joints between the wall logs and to line the inside of the chimney. While daub between the logs was used to keep wind and rain out of the dwelling, it was applied to the interior of the fireplace and flue to reduce the risk of fire. 

A ca. 1800 sawn slab from Monticello’s nursery. Jefferson placed these boards in the ceiling framing of Monticello to help make the house fire resistant.Riven oak slabs, or roughly formed boards, are being used to cover the roof.  Jefferson called for the log houses to be roofed with slabs in 1792 when he writes to his overseer Manoah Clarkson to request that the log houses “be covered and lofted with slabs.” Two layers of roof slabs will be installed and wrought iron nails made at the blacksmith shops in Colonial Williamsburg will hold them in place. Slabs are also being used as flooring in the recreated dwelling’s sleeping loft. Instead of riven slabs, these boards are made from sawn pine. Sawn slabs are the boards sawn off the sides of a log before the better quality lumber is cut from the wood closer to the center of the log. They retain the uneven outer edges of the log they were cut from and this detail is called a “waney” or “live” edge. Jefferson chose this material because it was inexpensive. In fact, slabs were so cheap in Jefferson’s time that he had problems getting enough of them for the log houses because a local blacksmith had taken almost all of them to make charcoal.

The quarter will be furnished and open to the public in the spring of 2015. For a more in depth look at slave life at Monticello, make sure to take the Slavery at Monticello tour  when you visit and also check out Monticello.org’s plantation and slavery exhibits.

The Mountaintop Project is made possible by a transformational contribution from David M. Rubenstein. Leading support was provided by Fritz and Claudine Kundrun, along with generous gifts and grants from the Sarah and Ross Perot, Jr. Foundation, the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. John H. Birdsall, Mr. and Mrs. B. Grady Durham, the Mars Family, the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Charlotte Moss and Barry Friedberg, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, the Cabell Foundation, the Garden Club of Virginia, and additional individuals, organizations, and foundations.

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