Gateway to History
By Renée S. Gordon
“Alexandria- There has been we expect, few places more affected by the present war than Alexandria.”
—The Local News, October 16, 1861
Alexandria, Virginia has occupied a unique place in United States’ history from its initial European settlement. The land was originally part of the Northern Neck Proprietary granted by Charles II in the 1650s. In 1669, 6,000-acres were sold to John Alexander for one pound of tobacco per acre. The 1730 Virginia Inspection Act, seeking to regulate tobacco quality, decreed that a series of stations be located at sites adjacent to the colony’s rivers and Hugh West constructed a tobacco warehouse in 1732 situated at the intersection of the Potomac River and Hunting Creek.
In 1748 the Virginia General Assembly was petitioned to allow the founding of a commercial town on the river and five-square miles of John Alexander’s land was chosen. Around 1748, George Washington, a surveyor by trade, mapped the settlement and about a year later he detailed the town layout including streets, owner’s names of the original 128 lots and purchase prices. The town was officially recognized in 1749 and named in honor of the Alexanders. In 1779 it was incorporated as a town.
Forty years later, Virginia ceded Alexandria to the government to become part of the planned District of Columbia. In 1801 Congress declared the annexation official with an added amendment that banned the use of property in what had been Virginia for the placement of any federal buildings. George Washington owned land in Alexandria and it is believed that, in order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, he formulated the legislation. Alexandria, already the residence of many colonial notables, became popular as a “suburb” of DC with hotels, taverns and a thriving port. In 1846 it was retroceded to Virginia.
The Civil War vastly altered Alexandria’s fortunes. It was occupied for four years by Union forces making it the longest held territory. The hardships and dismay of the southern citizens aside, the occupation is credited with saving the city from devastation and saving more than 200 of the historic structures. Many of the buildings and sites are clustered within the city’s historic area and a tour is best accomplished on foot. The district has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1966.
Any tour of Old Town Alexandria’s Historic District should begin in the Ramsay House Visitor Center at King and Fairfax Streets. This is the ideal location to gather guides, maps and make reservations for accommodations, restaurants and tours. The center is located inside the oldest house in Alexandria, once the home of founder William Ramsey. The house was constructed in Dumfries, Virginia, in 1724 and was later shipped down the Potomac in one piece and placed on a lot in Alexandria.
John Carlyle built the Palladian Carlyle House and dependencies in 1753 in the style of a Scottish manor house using the labor of Carlyle’s enslaved workers. General Braddock held the historic Governor’s Council to plan the French and Indian War there in 1755. The two-story mansion has been furnished with items from the period. Tours and events are regularly scheduled.
Market Square and City Hall were founded in 1749 and houses the oldest continuously operated market in the country. Washington drilled his troops here in 1754 and slave sales were held at the site.
Gadsby’s Tavern Museum is a two building structure that dates from a 1770 two-story Georgian edifice and a 1792 three-story Federal addition. In 1802 the 1792 building became Gadsby’s Tavern, a renowned colonial gathering place. Today it is a functioning 18th-century restaurant and a two-story museum. The first floor of the museum replicates public and private dining rooms in the 1700s. The second floor has colonial accommodations and a large ballroom with a musician’s gallery. George Washington’s Birthnight Ball was held here on February 10, 1797 without Washington in attendance. In 1798 and ’99 he did attend and, according to his journal, had a wonderful time. The ballroom’s original paneling is now part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Guided tours are offered.
The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum operated as a family business from1792 until 1933. The museum’s collection includes prescriptions, paraphernalia, furnishings, ledgers and more than 1,000 medical bottles. The two-room museum features the workroom in which the pharmacist made the medicines that were sold in the store and supplied to regional pharmacies. This was the local drugstore for the Lees and Washingtons and other founding fathers.
At 607 Oronoco Street the Federalist Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee is available for exterior viewing only. It is this house that Lee left to attend West Point. Nearby is the Greek Revival Lee-Fendall House, an ancestral Lee home for 37 family members from 1785 to 1902. The Lee-Fendall tour includes copy of Washington’s eulogy given by Henry Lee and Lee family items.
Washington and R. E. Lee reserved pews at Christ Church designated with plaques. Of architectural interest are the pepper pot steeple, magnificent Palladian window and raised wineglass pulpit. The church was completed in 1773 on land donated by the Alexander family. Winston Churchill attended service here and incumbent U.S. presidents attend services on the Sunday closest to Washington’s Birthday.
Captain’s Row is the original cobblestone 100 block of Prince Street. Captain John Harper owned several townhouses on the street and it bordered the Potomac. The 200 block was known as Gentry Row and several of Washington’s friends lived in the townhouses along the street as well as his personal doctor.
Nestled at 525 Queen Street between two larger townhouses is a tiny Spite House. It was built in 1830 by brickmaker John Hollensbury to deter pedestrian and wagon traffic from using the alley next to his house. This tiny jewel was built to enclose the area and “spite” those who used it as shortcut or to loiter. The house has two floors measuring a mere 325-ft. sq. and is 25-ft. deep and 7-ft. across the front. The house retains the original pine floors and interior bricks with visible gouge marks from the wagons that once passed through the alley.
There are several important sites outside of the main historic area including the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. The building stands 333-ft. tall and was built on Shooter’s Hill where Union soldiers were stationed during the war. The memorial features a collection of Washington memorabilia, a 17-ft bronze sculpture and two 40-ft. long murals by Allyn Cox. One of the murals shows Washington attending a service at Philadelphia’s Christ Church. Tours include a replica of their first hall, a museum and an observation deck. The structure is modeled after the Lighthouse of Pharos in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The granite building was constructed over a 40-year period.
On May 24, 1861, 800 men from Alexandria met to pray and march south to join the Confederate cause. The Robert E. Lee Camp, United Confederate Veterans commissioned M. C. Buberi to sculpt a monument to the men who fought in the war to be placed at S. Washington & Prince Streets, their point of departure. A painting by John Elder inspired the 7-ft. bronze statue, “Appomattox.” It depicts an unarmed soldier gazing south. Inscribed on the base are the names of the 100 Alexandrian men who were battle casualties. The sculpture was dedicated in 1889.
The Torpedo Factory was once an active military facility and was responsible for the making of 1,000 torpedoes during WWI and II and at one time was a repository for documents from the Nuremberg Trials. Since 1974 the 1918 building is the Torpedo Factory Art Center featuring six galleries, an art school and an archeology museum. This is a good place to purchase a unique gift or special souvenir. The TFAC is located on the waterfront and offers easy access to great views.
Potomac Riverboat Company cruises and water taxis embark from the Alexandria City Marina at Cameron Street. The family-owned company has been in operation in Alexandria since 1984. There are a variety of guided and pleasure tours that are scheduled seasonally including a 40-minute narrated Alexandria Seaport Cruise, a Mount Vernon Cruise and even a Canine Cruise. Schedules, prices and a complete list of offerings can be found on the website.
DC Metro Food Tours are an absolutely fantastic way to “literally” get a taste of Alexandria while being guided through the city’s social and architectural history. The 3.5-hour tour includes food tastings at locally owned restaurants. Alexandria walks are offered as well as tours of several other communities.
The city is so chock full of interesting and eclectic food venues that it is difficult to choose among dining options. Here are a few of my favorites:
Port City Brewing Company is the first brewery in the capital region since Prohibition. It’s been brewing handcrafted beers since 2011 and is a must for beer lovers.
Restaurant Eve was the Obamas’ dining establishment of choice for their wedding anniversary. Award-winning Chef Cathal Armstrong creates healthy innovative cuisine using fresh local ingredients.
Society Fair is a “lifestyle” restaurant created and designed to provide a total culinary experience. This 18-month old establishment is a food destination featuring a bakery, butcher shop, market, wine bar and demonstration kitchen. Society Fair is open seven days a week and food-oriented activities are scheduled on a regular basis.
Union Street Public House serves classic food including its famous Wally’s Oysters. Union Street is situated inside a renovated colonial warehouse and the taproom retains the original tin ceiling.
Virtue Feed and Grain Restaurant serves dishes made from food products from within a 100-mile radius. The food is excellent and I strongly suggest that you don’t leave the city without tasting Virtue’s mac and cheese.
Eighty percent of the shops in Alexandra are locally owned and owners pride themselves on the unique items they showcase and the personal service they provide. Arguably the most unique shopping option is La Cuisine, The Cook’s Resource. You really could spend the day here examining the spices, delicacies, cutlery, utensils, cookware and specialty items that fill the store. Owner Nancy Pollard places the emphasis on the “best” products not necessarily the most expensive. The store publishes three newsletters annually and holds product tastings, classes, and special events.
The Lorien Hotel and Spa, the newest luxury spa hotel in the region, is a Kimpton property with all the singular amenities and services that the brand implies. The hotel is conveniently situated near the metro stop, train station and attractions. Specials and packages are available that make a stay here incredibly affordable.
Fall is the optimum time to visit Alexandria. You can purchase a Key to the City pass for $9.00 with admission to nine historic sites and more than 100 special offers.
The Founding Fathers loved visiting Alexandria and I bet you will too.
I wish you smooth travels!
Kimpton is having a 72-hour flash sale of the best Thanksgiving Deals at Kimpton’s Washington, D.C. area hotels. The sale takes place from September 24-26 for stays from November 22-December 1, 2013. Rates start at $95 per night plus tax. Check online for the names and locations of participating hotels. kimptonhotels.com and Facebook.com/Kimpton
-Photos by Renée S. Gordon