Menokin: Fiercely Ambitious 18th Century Historic Construction


The Wall Street Journal called the Menokin project “…the most fiercely ambitious historic restoration project in America today.” The project includes stabilizing a National Historic Landmark stone and wood ruin and recreating missing elements in glass.

Encore Sustainable Architect’s Principal, Ward Bucher, presented on this expansive restoration project in a course hosted by the AIA Baltimore Historic Resources Committee. He discussed the level of collaboration required between archeologists and architects, structural engineers and preservationists and the different skills that each brought to the table. Usually, their skills are used to restore buildings and recreate their original condition, but in this instance, they had to use their skills for a very different purpose.

Just down the road from Menokin is Stratford Hall, a beautifully preserved building that offers visitors a glimpse into 18th century life. Because of its association with the historic Lee family, Stratford Hall has been maintained as a fully intact house and grounds. In contrast, over the centuries the Menokin house fell into disrepair and portions collapsed. What Menokin House offers, rather than a look into 18th century life, is a look into 18th century masonry and construction.

History of the Property 

Francis Lightfoot Lee was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Upon his marriage to Rebecca Tayloe, his new father-in-law gifted the couple Menokin House and the adjoining plantation. The house was constructed in the Palladian Style, almost square, and comprised an office building and a kitchen building. Well-preserved drawings from nearby Mount Airy in 1769 show the original floor plans for Menokin. 

Early on in the restoration project, Ward and the team were able to identify the composition of the walls that would be critical to their work in reinforcing them. While the exterior walls were built with stone and constructed first, the interior walls were made with brick. 

The last time the home was occupied was in 1942. In the intervening years, through weather, fallen trees, and neglect, it had become uninhabitable. Collapse started in 1964, when a large tree hit one corner and then the progress of deterioration accelerated. At the start of the project, the NorthEast corner of the attic was the most intact section of the home, along with the two original chimneys. 

Even as a ruin, Menokin House was categorized as a national historic landmark. That’s how the team came to decide that, in contrast to nearby Stratford Hall, Menokin could offer a new and unusual opportunity for students of history, architecture and craftsmanship to see into the past. By first restoring the house using the original materials and incorporating modern technology to offer structural reinforcement, the team could add glass walls to the missing sections and allow visitors to view historic building practices they would be unable to see in a completed building. 

“The concept that was developed was to restore and rebuild portions of the stonework but infill larger missing portions with glass.” 

Sorting it Out

The first step in creating this learning opportunity, was to identify the raw, historic materials that were still available to be used as part of the restoration. Scattered stones were everywhere and teams began storing them. Rubble stones were put in bins, cut stones were put on pallets and they took pains to identify where each stone was originally placed. 


The process of organizing the stones resembled fitting pieces of a 3D puzzle. A large canvas was created with a printed layout of the facade of the house, detailing arches, doorways and windows. As the stones were identified, they were placed in the space on the canvas that corresponded to their original orientation on Menokin House. 

Once separating and organizing was completed, the real work could begin. With every task the team would face, they would have to make sure they followed the age-old adage of restoration: “Do reversible work.” By following this principle, any future preservationists will be able to remove the work of Ward and his team without harm to the original materials, should there be a further restorative effort in years to come. 

Recreating Mortar:

While there are many options for modern building mortar, preservation efforts should always aim to utilize the materials as well as the techniques used in the original construction of the building being restored. By running tests on the mortar that remained in the walls of Menokin House, Ward and his team were able to identify the mixture’s components which were not uniform throughout the construction of the walls. In some areas the proportion of quicklime to sand resembled 1:3 and in other areas it was closer to 1:1. 

Having learned this, identifying the best sand to recreate the look of the original was the next question. Several materials were mixed and tested until a match was found. In this image, two small samples of the original mortar are compared and found to be the closest match to river sand. 


Reinforcing Walls:

Wherever possible, the team would use historic masonry practices in their restoration to remain as true to the original as possible. However, there are places where modern technology can be incorporated to reinforce the strength of the walls without any visual effect.


Metal rods, called helifix anchors, were drilled into the back of the outward facing stones of the walls to help the large stones gain purchase with the mortar. Once the interior of the wall was filled, 2×2 stainless steel mesh was laid across the top of the mortar and the helifix anchors were affixed to the mesh to create horizontal strength within the wall. 


Why Technique is Important:

In a restoration project as large as Menokin House, technique and processes are important to keep the project on track, ensure the work remains true to the original and ensure longevity of the structure for future use. By taking pains to source and sort original materials from the ruin of Menokin House to be used in the restoration efforts conserves resources and the historical accuracy of the final project. Figuring out how to recreate the historic mortar mix will add to the visual continuity of the house between original areas and areas that have been restored. Invisibly reinforcing the historic walls with modern technology will help the efforts of Ward and his team last longer than the original. 

If you are interested in seeing how the ongoing Menokin Glass House Project comes together, keep checking back on our website for updates from Ward and the team.