Here’s a stumper for you: Why is Colonial Williamsburg’s Magazine shaped like an octagon?
Answer? Nobody is 100 percent sure. There are good guesses, but Alexander Spotswood, lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1710 to 1722 and likely architect of the Magazine, never wrote down his muse.
Architectural historians surmise that Spotswood wanted to replicate exceptional English motifs in the capital when he designed the Magazine a couple years into his tenure. For Spotswood, an English gentleman, the octagonal Magazine was a focal point of Williamsburg, his American garden.
On the surface, eight towering brick walls seem suitable for storing arms, ammunition, and gunpowder, but on closer inspection, the fancy facade masks a few features that weren’t a good fit with so explosive an inventory. Nevertheless, the Magazine’s design and placement helped ensure that this iconic building would eventually become one of the 88 original structures guests enjoy at Colonial Williamsburg.
The Magazine could have easily met a spectacular end. Take, for instance, a different though contemporary powder magazine, this one in Brescia, Italy. In 1769, lightning struck, igniting the gunpowder inside. The resulting blast killed 3,000 townspeople and destroyed much of the city. While Williamsburg’s Magazine never contained enough powder, nor the town enough residents, to match the scale of that disaster, the potential still existed for things to go very wrong.
Gunpowder was the stuff of life for all firearms, the only practical means of shooting projectiles out of barrels (actually, as Ron Potts, assistant armorer at the Magazine, points out in this Past & Present podcast, gunpowder doesn’t explode, it deflagrates). Naturally, 18th century military stores usually had a lot of the vital propellant.
Among the items included in the Magazine’s first recorded inventory in 1716 were muskets, tents, shot and “154 barrels of Powder.” Decades later, in the American Revolution, the Magazine was the scene of the Gunpowder Incident and a place American patriots stored munitions they used to fight against the British.
The Magazine had safety features to prevent against an accidental detonation. The ground-level gunpowder storage room was walled off from the Smith’s Shop, where the public armorer repaired weaponry, as well as the second and third-floor armory, which contained military supplies. In fact, there was no way to access the powder from inside, which kept a wayward spark from sneaking through an interior door. What’s more, visitors to the chamber with those barrels of gunpowder were forbidden from having metal anywhere on them.
Still, outside of the brick facade and quarantined workspace, there seem to have been intuitive details that didn’t make it into the finished building. Much of the Magazine’s interior, for example, was made of wood, not the most fire-safe construction material available. And there’s no evidence that builders included a device to ground a lightning strike, even though the Magazine was one of the town’s taller structures.
Those shortcomings aside, explains Potts, the Magazine wowed onlookers from the beginning. “18th century visitors always remarked on what a ‘fine’ or ‘handsome’ structure it was,” he says.
The Magazine has always been more than just a pretty edifice, too. It’s mathematically complex. Writes Colonial Williamsburg architectural historian Marcus Whiffen in The Public Buildings of Williamsburg: “Walls and roof are of exactly the same height and the total height from the ground to the apex of the roof is equal to the diagonal of a square constructed on the diameter.”
Those same interesting traits could also be a liability—in the form of flying debris—in the event of an accident. The Powder Magazine in Charleston, South Carolina, built around the same time as Williamsburg’s, eschewed looks for practicality. If the contents ever blew up, Charleston’s magazine was designed to implode and fall in on itself rather than hurling its walls and roof outward.
One last notable quirk of Williamsburg’s Magazine was its location. “Often powder magazines were placed on a city’s outskirts, where the population density was much lower, just in case,” says Potts. Not Williamsburg’s. Standing on Market Square, the Magazine was right in the middle of town.
Oddly enough, that central position proved to be the Magazine’s savior. Powder magazines removed from the population were quick to become victims of time and nature once they outlived their usefulness. Williamsburg residents, however, weren’t about to let a structure so strong, not to mention an eight-sided eye-catcher, go to ruin, even after the guns of revolution fell silent and Virginia’s capital moved to Richmond. The old Magazine was, after all, in the middle of the city, convenient to everyone and everything.
That’s why the Magazine’s post-revolution renaissance was so vibrant. A shopkeeper peddled wares there after the United States achieved independence and when he left, Baptist parishioners heard the word of God delivered by Reverend Servant Jones. For two years the Magazine was a dance school and also saw brief use as an arsenal once more during the Civil War. Even horses enjoyed the Magazine’s shelter when it served as a livery stable.
When the animals left, the Magazine assumed a calling that has carried through the decades. A group of citizens began an effort to preserve the noble, old tower as a tribute to the American history that took place there. By the 1890s, the Magazine was a museum displaying artifacts from America’s revolutionary past, a harbinger of the restoration of 18th century Williamsburg four decades later.
GUEST BLOGGER: BEN SWENSON
Ben Swenson lives in Williamsburg, Virginia with his wife and two sons. His writing career has led him to all sorts of odd corners of the world: he has jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, wrestled crab pots on a Chesapeake Bay work boat and taken a helicopter ride through a twisting river gorge. Odds are good you will find him outside with them somewhere when he is not chasing or telling stories.