Standing at the highest point of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg’s new entrance is a reminder of the 18th-century craftsmanship that was part of life in early America.
The 65,000-square-foot expansion to the Art Museums is slated to open next spring, but even as construction is completed, passersby can admire the weather vane on the cupola. Weather permitting, the new entrance and the weather vane, made by the blacksmith and silversmith shops, will greet visitors before Thanksgiving.
For 18th-century travelers to Williamsburg, a weather vane could immediately orient them to the town. A weather vane’s compass points offered direction, its windblown banner indicated weather conditions and its presence meant the roof on which it stood topped a building with an important public function.
“All someone had to do was look up,” said Ken Schwarz, master blacksmith and director of historic trades and skills in the Historic Area. “Is this building the courthouse? If there’s no weather vane, probably not. Is the banner being blown from the southeast? That means hot and humid weather conditions.”
While certainly just as functional today, weather vanes are largely ornamental when weather reports are as close as a smartphone. Historic Area visitors can spot them on Bruton Parish Church, the Governor’s Palace, the Courthouse, the Magazine, the Capitol and the Public Hospital. And Colonial Williamsburg’s skilled tradespeople have reproduced all of them, with the exception of a few original elements: the spindles on the church and Courthouse vanes, as well as the scrollwork on the Courthouse vane.
Forging of the museum’s vane began in May, but Schwarz had sketched a design for the weather vane back in 2016. Taking inspiration from the late 18th-century portrayed in the Historic Area and the large collection of 19th-century folk art in the museum, Schwarz’s design bridges those time periods.
Schwarz also brought Mark Sperry and Aislinn Lewis, both journeyman blacksmiths, into the project this past spring. The tradespeople took some creative license in forging the vane’s main elements — the spindle, compass points, scrollwork, banner and copper ball.
“With weather vane design, there are subtle shifts over time,” Lewis said. “In the late 18th century and early 19th century, the banners tended to be more decorative and longer with more of a tail look, as opposed to the early 18th-century one on the Magazine, which is much more square.”
For their research, they referenced Albert Sonn’s Early American Wrought Iron, a go-to resource in the blacksmithing community for its compilation of more than 3,000 detailed drawings of East Coast ironwork. Before they began any work in the shop, Schwarz, Sperry and Lewis drew a full-size version of the weather vane to perfect the proportions of each design element.
Then they divided the work by the weather vane’s main features: Schwarz took on the spindle and the banner; Sperry produced the compass points; and Lewis shaped the scrolls. The banner and the copper ball, the latter forged by apprentice silversmith Parker Brown, will be gilded. Their fellow blacksmiths pitched in when help was needed, particularly in maneuvering such a large project.
At more than 15 feet long, of which about 10 feet will be visible, the spindle had to be made in pieces and then welded together to give Schwarz more room to fashion each section. It is wider and circular toward the bottom so that it can be fitted into a metal pipe within the cupola. Just above the copper ball, the spindle thins out into more of a square shape, where the compass points and scrollwork are positioned. It then tapers to a point.
Sperry used the compass points on the Courthouse vane as inspiration but added serifs, or decorative lines and flairs, to the letters. Unlike many of his projects, which largely require him to hammer out a shape, the compass points required a lot of folding and welding. The W, for example, required about 10 welds to create the serifed letter.
“It’s kind of like metal origami because you’re figuring out the shape on the bar. You’re looking at where to fold it so that it neatly becomes a W or to find the best way to make the serif,” Sperry said.
Lewis forged the decorative scrollwork, made up of eight scrolls, and even expanded the length of each with an added flourish not in the original sketch. Using two 21-inch-long, ¼-inch-wide bars of iron for each, she shaped the scrolls to be identical.
“Most things we produce in the shop don’t require us to make scrolls, so it’s different and that makes it challenging,” Lewis said. “They’re purely decorative but they require precision because all eight have to be identical.”
Brown hammered out the copper ball that serves as more than a design element. When the silversmiths made the copper ball for the Public Hospital’s weather vane in 1984, they included items inside to recognize those who worked on the project. It is a fun surprise that will be repeated for the museums’ project.
The copper ball is only the third made in the silversmith shop since 1984, so Brown took meticulous notes for future silversmiths to follow. The spherical nature of the product requires a high level of exactness. On each of the two copper discs used to create the ball, Brown drew circular guidelines that radiate out from the center to indicate where he should hammer, which causes the copper to raise hemispherically and evenly. He then soldered the two pieces together.
“The human eye knows what a circle looks like,” Brown said. “If I’m hammering it into shape and I think, ‘Well, this is pretty darn close,’ that’s not good enough. The human eye will pick up the imperfection, even from on top of a building.”
The original weather vanes that stood atop the Courthouse and Bruton Parish Church were there for centuries, until Colonial Williamsburg conservators took them down to preserve them. The weather vane for the new museum entrance is built for the same longevity.
“Iron is a pretty durable metal,” Schwarz said. “The idea that the originals were there for more than 200 years means ours could be up for 200 years. I sort of like that idea. Our work will live long beyond our time.”
The $40 million expansion to the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg was funded entirely by donations.