During March and April of 1990 the Restoration Coordinator Travis McDonald and Architectural Conservator Andrew Ladygo examined the interior of the house for the purposes of documentatation and preliminary analysis. This process resulted in a two volume staff report in May 1990 which included descriptions of every room, a set of measured drawings showing surface and environmental conditions, and a set of measured drawings showing alteration evidence which could be determined from a surface examination.
The restoration team (staff and Mesick Cohen Waite Architects) undertook a preliminary one week reconnaissance probe of the house in May 1990, constituting the first phase of the investigation. Using the surface mapping information and documentary references, selected areas in the house were probed with small "windows" opened in plaster walls, the removal of floor boards or trim, and a close examination of material for construction techniques and production technology. The ultimate question was the determination of the extent to which Jeffersonian fabric and details had survived the 1845 fire.
The results of the one-week preliminary investigation probe were so promising that the decision was made by the staff, consultants, advisory panel and board of directors to launch a full-scale investigation, including the removal of all post-Jefferson material where that material covered Jeffersonian fabric. Standards for removing architectural elements and recording evidence were established. Because interpretation decisions had not been made as to the eventual treatment of the house, all parts removed from the house, except for plaster, concrete and modern mechanical systems, were carefully labelled and stored in the event the house would not be interpreted in a Jefferson period.
As staff removed material during the investigation, evidence was recorded on 1" scale drawings and in photographs. These drawings recorded materials, nailing blocks, methods of construction, "ghosts" of baseboards, chair rails, casings, entablatures, wall studs, partitions, mantels, etc. For the most part these ghosts were those of the plaster grounds, which were used for all pieces of trim. A large part of the analysis of materials was conducted by Architectural Conservator Andrew Ladygo through mortar and plaster analysis and microscopic paint analysis. In addition, neutron activation tests were also performed by the University of Virginia Nuclear Reactor Laboratory on certain mortar samples.
Concurrent with the daily on-site investigation by staff, consulting architects, John Mesick and Jeff Baker visited the site about once a month to examine the investigated areas and to consult with the staff. "This information was used to develop tentative drawings of probable original conditions. These drawings, by integrating the diverse data found in historic archives and the fragmentary physical evidence uncovered by the removal process with known Jefferson precedents, have provided the means to test various design rationales. This continuing process of diagnosis and analysis yielded answers to many of the questions concerning the original configuration of construction details and architectural features of the interior and exterior extant during the period of Jefferson's ownership."
The investigation was conducted in phases and sub-phases of approximately 6 months to 1 year. At the end of each phase the consultants would produce a report and the advisory panel would meet with the staff and consultants to evaluate the evidence of that phase and to determine the scope of the following phase.
Documentation of all bare walls was accomplished by photographer Robert Ziegler using 4x5 black-and-white and transparency film. The black-and-white film has been printed at a 1" scale. Datum lines established by a professional surveyor are marked in each photograph by string lines (permanently established by threaded sleeves and slotted head screws in each corner). The datum lines are also used for the 1" scale drawings of each bare interior elevation by Mesick Cohen Waite. These drawings became the base set for all future work or recording in the house.
The architectural investigation of the main house was completed with an examination, documentation and analysis. The architects produced an Investigation Report and the staff produced an Historic Structures Report using that information. After this two-year investigation and analysis the restoration team presented their findings and recommendations to the Poplar Forest Board of Directors who adopted the following in April 1992:
- The significance of Poplar Forest is that of its owner/designer/builder/occupant Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's conception, design and the process and technology of construction are key to interpreting the house and site. This significance extends to the landscape as well.
- While the other periods of the house's history are important to interpret, they do not justify physical interpretation in the house itself.
- There is a unique opportunity to interpret the restoration process as well.
- Sufficient evidence exists to pursue restoration and reconstruction of missing or altered features.
- The entire exterior should be restored and reconstructed, including window and door openings and the roof.
- The interior of the main floor should be completely restored and reconstructed in an architectural manner except for the east room, where a combination of exposed evidence and restored parts can tell about the investigative and analytical process.
- The basement might be restored as far as information allows.
- Certain other issues need to be decided in the near future, such as docent and other needs in the basement, and mechanical systems.