The Cole Digges House has had a varied life, with aggressive changes to both the exterior and interior spaces. Outside this evolution is richly evident, while inside the 1925 restoration provided an entirely new skin, covering early fabric and obscuring generations of change. Almost no original interior finish remains visible, but the 1925 fabric has assumed its own importance. Brickwork and exterior woodwork is worthy of gentle care, as is the interior woodwork.
The current policy of leaving the exterior as it exists is the right one, in favor of any attempt to resuscitate this venerable work of taxidermy as a young building. The other responsibility of conscientious, anti-scrape preservation is thoughtfully conceived repair, as needed. While there has been no single-minded restoration of the brickwork, much of the repair that has been done over the years has been harsher than appropriate for a building of this age, importance, and location.
Numerous masons have used hard mortars and unmatched brick in repointing or rebuilding parts of the brickwork, some prior to 1925. It is preferable now to leave this in place, except where hard mortar is loose and easily removed. Certainly the Portland cement-like mortars should not be cut out with power tools or in any way that chips the brick. All new mortar repointing, on the other hand, should be done carefully with a softness as well as color matching the original. Mortar recipes should be reviewed and approved in advance by knowledgeable conservators. While unweathered areas of original mortar have relatively rough joints, these are generally superior to later work and should not be perceived as license for inferior workmanship in the future.
Sample brick panels using proposed mortar and exhibiting intended level of craftsmanship should be executed with comparable new brick and acceptable samples approved before any work is done on the building itself.
If masonry walls need to be cut for installation of electrical or plumbing lines, the work should be carefully planned and reviewed, the cutting done inside rather than where visible, and confined to new (20th- to 21st-century) brickwork.
The masonry should never be sandblasted or heavily power-washed. Any action that cuts or erodes early masonry should be avoided.
It is remarkable, given the physical history of the house, that much early exterior trim survives. These are substantial parts of the front cornice and dormers, particularly the facings, that have been retained and used in combination with 20th-century elements. Parts of a rear dormer and cornice on the rear wing are also early, as are the right exterior door leafs. The normal preservation standard of retaining early finish, carefully patching rather than replacing it, should continue to be followed at the Cole Digges House. Epoxy and other modern patching materials currently used by architectural conservators offer acceptable alternatives to patching in kind, if this permits more early fabric to survive, and if carefully executed. None of the early woodwork should be stripped prior to repainting.
Microscopic paint analysis is a rapidly developing field. Paint analysis is not currently a high priority for this building, given the era in which it is presented. But remnants of early exterior paint are always endangered by weather and cleaning, so sampling and analysis would ultimately be useful in order to understand the house. Early woodwork should not be stripped after analysis because early finish layers can respond to repeated investigation.
If the exterior is marked by change, the interior is characterized by completeness -- almost total survival of a coherent body of colonial revival finish. In a region where colonial revival taste dominated residential architecture for most of the 20th century, this is an important monument, more literal in rendering than earlier design here and elsewhere, but more personal than the literalism spawned by Colonial Williamsburg beginning in the early 1930s. The intact state of the 1925 interior is worth preserving. If unconsidered changes are gradually permitted, its special visual qualities will erode.
It is appropriate to leave all existing woodwork in place and ensure that new electrical, plumbing, fire detection or suppression, and life safety elements not be cut through them. This report mentions all original framing. Contractors should be clearly informed of which framing is early and that should, therefore, be left unspoiled by installation of systems.
The need to keep heating, cooling, and ventilation grilles as well as lighting and safety elements inconspicuous can sometimes clash with the need to avoid cutting original masonry and framing. But careful planning and rigorous review of proposals for installation and change of systems can maintain a balance. Ultimately, long-term preservation of early fabric is more important than short-term appearance.
Life safety codes will change in subsequent years, but the appearance and integrity of the building should remain a major concern. Given current codes, fire suppression systems are best continued to the cellar and attic.
The woodwork was originally lighter in color when installed, and has taken on a rich patina, though there may be some soft c.1925 and subsequent stains. Selected elements of the woodwork may be gently cleaned but should not be stripped with solvents or sanded. If light-colored scratches on the wood are thought intrusive, an architectural conservator should recommend means of selective spot staining. It is essential that the walls and floors not be treated with inappropriate, permanent finishes like polyurethane.
Less obvious than the 1925 woodwork is the presence of many pieces of earlier architectural trim used as raw material in the restoration. Carpenters sawed up interior trim like chair boards and bases to use as furring behind their new woodwork and plaster. Most of what we see is very simple and predominantly early 19th-century but it is worth retaining as evidence for how the building evolved, and as a source for information about 19th-century paint colors. The fragments may actually be more useful for paint investigation than exterior trim still in place.
The house was completely re-plastered c. 1925, using an intentionally crude application to create a rustic effect. Scarff described it as "colonial finish, and not the hard smooth finish of modern plastering."  This is more similar to the plaster used in new Olde English suburban houses of the '20s than it is to the excessively precise plaster employed by Colonial Williamsburg from the 1920s to the '60s. Only in the kitchen, baths, and closets is conventional 20th-century plaster used.
The plaster is worth retaining. Wherever it is necessary to repair or replace plaster, a roughly troweled surface should be used, matching the existing. These include the ceilings where plaster was removed for our architectural investigation, most notably in the hall (left first-floor room).
As noted above, virtually every piece of c.1925 hardware survives in place. Most of the ironwork is specially made, while the window latches are ordinary stock items, and the locks are from an eclectic variety of sources and eras. All this is worthy of remaining where it is. When pieces of the hardware are broken, they should be either repaired by a knowledgeable blacksmith or reproduced and the originals labeled and stored in the NPS collection or in a permanent container above the roof collars. Attempting to make the hardware more literally 18th-century is not appropriate in this case.
Last Updated: 19-Jan-2005