Alexandria, Virginia: Where history lives

A Walking Tour of Historic Alexandria, Virginia. Part One

In “Alexandria: Where History Lives,” his concise guide to touring historic Alexandria, Craig Lancto observed: “If Boston is the Cradle of Liberty, Alexandria is its womb.” Most of the images are his and we collaborated on much of what follows.

Although the most picturesque way to arrive in Alexandria is by boat, which offers a sense of the preserved green space and the overarching and lovingly maintained colonial character of the city, the most frequent mode is private vehicle, which is also the most problematic because of parking. (The Ramsay House Visitors Center, 221 King Street [telephone: (703) 746-3301] about which more below, offers limited free parking for tourists.) The most convenient and inexpensive way to visit is via Metrorail, arriving at King Street Station on the Yellow or Blue Line.

Ramsay House Visitor Center
Ramsay House Visitor Center | Source
Looking west at Alexandria from the Potomac
Looking west at Alexandria from the Potomac

Getting to Alexandria

Assuming that you paid attention to my very good advice, arriving at the King Street Metro Station, I’d suggest taking a short walk west to Shuters Hill, the site of the magnificent George Washington Masonic Temple. (You can’t really miss it; it is the only tower on the hill.) Shuters Hill has its own stories including some involving the Civil War and the Wright brothers, but we will discuss those in the second part of the tour.

Geroge Washington Masonic Temple

The George Washington Masonic Temple (from Monroe Avenue Bridge, Route 1)
The George Washington Masonic Temple (from Monroe Avenue Bridge, Route 1) | Source
The George Washington Masonic Temple from Union Station. The memorial to Alexandria's war dead in the foreground was created from a rejected Temple column.
The George Washington Masonic Temple from Union Station. The memorial to Alexandria's war dead in the foreground was created from a rejected Temple column. | Source

The Masonic Temple has only recently begun charging for tours, $5.00 for the lower two floors and $8.00 for the guided tour that includes going to the observation deck near the top of the tower. If you are going to pay, by all means, go the extra $3.00 and enjoy the whole experience. On a clear day, the view is probably the best in Metropolitan Washington, including Old Town Alexandria; Washington, DC, National Harbor and the nearby United States Patent and Trade Office to the southeast. Even if you don’t want to take the time to tour the Masonic Temple today (If you plan to go in now, you might take a peek at Part Two, because I reveal some secrets that the tour guides don’t mention), you can get a pretty fair look at the city from its front steps. (No charge.) For today, though, we will concentrate on the historic core of Old Town. For that, we will walk back to the Metro Station to catch the FREE trolley that will take you to the Potomac River at the bottom of King Street, about a mile and a half east. The city sponsors the trolley, which makes about 10 stops in each direction at fifteen-minute intervals. In October 2012, the trolley is scheduled to begin extending north to the charming and popular Del Ray section of the city.

Russell Road Boundary Marker

DC boundary marker on Russell Road
DC boundary marker on Russell Road

District of Columbia boundary marker

If you have a few extra minutes and a taste for the arcane, wander a short distance north to the intersection of King Street and Russell Road, where you will (we hope) find a wrought iron fence surrounding a stone, one of the original boundary markers of the District of Columbia. In 1791, George Washington designated ten square miles carved out of Maryland and Virginia as the Federal City that now bears his moniker. For many reasons, including a huge slave trade in the city that was jeopardized by talk of DC legislation against slavery which was passed in 1862, Alexandrians decided that being part of a district without congressional representation was not working for them and they petitioned for retrocession. Congress agreed and returned the area to Virginia in 1846. Many of the markers remain, including the one on Russell Road and the first one, which was placed at Jones Point near the current site of the Wilson Bridge.

For now, we will troll (or whatever is the verb to “take the trolley”) along to the Potomac River. (I have a good name for the riders, but it might get me slapped by those who remember its meaning.)

The trolley begins/ends at the King Street Metro Station and just east of the intersection of King and Union streets near the city docks and the Torpedo Factory. From the docks, you might choose to take a water taxi to National Harbor or Georgetown, or a variety of sightseeing tours by water, including a delightful round trip to George Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon about an hour away by water.

The Torpedo Factory

Sometimes street entertainers, jugglers, water-glass organists, or a small company of parrots, willing to pose for pictures at a small fee enjoy a presence on the docks, but the big building on Union, between King and Cameron streets is the erstwhile Torpedo Factory, now the Torpedo Factory Art Gallery, open most days from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., Thursdays until 9 p.m. (check website for current information). With more than 80 artists’ studios and a half-dozen galleries, the building, which also houses Alexandria’s modest Archaeology Museum invites art lovers to spend a few dollars---hours!

Note that the archaeology museum keeps shorter hours than the art gallery, so do consult the museum’s separate website.

Boats dock behind the Topedo Factory

Potomac River cruises and water taxis dock behind the Torpedo Factory.
Potomac River cruises and water taxis dock behind the Torpedo Factory. | Source

The Potomac has been the significant feature in Alexandria’s growth. The city is still known as the Port City from its previous prominence in shipping and commerce. As far back as the mid 18th century, tobacco was inspected here before being shipped back to Merry Olde.

When Lawrence Washington, a Fairfax County delegate to the House of Burgesses, proposed carving a city out of the area November 1, 1748, his younger step-brother, George, sketched the shoreline to advance arguments for the plan.

But don’t even mention Alexandria’s five days of infamy in 1814!

Most of the land we see around the Torpedo Factory is fill. If we want to cover some of the main historic sites in Old Town, we should start walking west on King Street. Although it is now a gentle incline, it was once mud flats separated from the town by a steep rise just east of the Ramsay House Visitors Center, considered the oldest house in Alexandria.

As we walk west on King Street, it is worth recalling that this is where the War Between the States came to Alexandria.

On May 1, 1861, Alexandria voted to join Virginia in secession from the Union. In the pre-dawn hours of May 2, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, commander of a Zouave regiment from New York and a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, landed at the bottom of King Street on one of the three river steamers carrying the 21-year-old and his regiment. Ellsworth divided his men into two squads, one to seize the railroads, the second, under his command, to capture the telegraph office.

As Ellsworth and his men crested the King Street rise at Fairfax Street, near Ramsay House, he saw an oversized Confederate flag flying from the roof of the Marshall House Hotel to the left about two blocks ahead, where the Hotel Monaco now stands. The hotel, managed by an ardent and defiant secessionist named James W. Jackson, stood at the southwest corner of King and Pitt, a block west of City Hall. According to Edward House, a New York Tribune reporter, Ellsworth turned to his troops and said, “Boys, we must have that flag.”

But more about that when we get there in Part Two. Or you can read another of my Hub pages: North Meets South; Death Comes to Marshall House.

Ramsay House from North Fairfax Street.
Ramsay House from North Fairfax Street. | Source

At Ramsay House Visitors Center (221 King Street) (Toilets are downstairs, if you need to "wash your hands" [wink, wink]). You might take some maps, brochures, a local paper or two, and savor the knowledge that one of Alexandria’s founders (and George Washington’s friend) and first mayor, William Ramsay, is believed to have barged this 1724 building up the Potomac from Dumphries. No suggestions about why. The friendly folk at the information desk are eager to help you enjoy your stay in Alexandria. If you drove—despite our recommendations—they also can provide some temporary free parking.

Should you plan to enter some of the museums that charge admission, the Key to the City, available for purchase here, is an excellent value.

Note that the Old Town section of Alexandria was laid out in a neat grid system. King Street marks the dividing line between north and south (a common theme in Alexandria). South Fairfax Street is to our left and North Fairfax Street in front of Ramsay House.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum.
Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. | Source
Interior of Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary.
Interior of Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary. | Source

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

If you are here for only a short time, notice the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum across the street to your left (105-107 South Fairfax Street). Founded in 1792, the apothecary served such notables as Mrs. Washington and Robert E. Lee, who was here when JEB Stuart found him to report trouble at Harpers Ferry. More about Stabler-Leadbeater in Part Two.

Market Square

Directly across North Fairfax Street is Market Square with its reflecting pool and graceful fountains. Market Square has been the scene of political and military activity for well over 200 years. This was the site of the Fairfax Town Hall and Courthouse built in 1752. On July 18, 1774, George Washington and George Mason met with other county residents at the (then) Fairfax Courthouse to approve the Fairfax Resolves. These resolutions (written by Mason) asserted the colonists' rights under British law and called for actions including a congress of representatives from each colony to prepare a plan for the "Defence and preservation of our Common rights" and a boycott of all English goods. A precursor of the Declaration of Independence, the Fairfax Resolves or Resolutions demanded fair treatment for colonists. Read the text online at www.gunstonhall.org/documents/resolves.html.

George Washington drilled the Virginia militia here in 1754. General Braddock’s troops also drilled here. Today the square hosts a farmers market, political gatherings, concerts, and other events throughout the year. In the mid nineteenth century, slave auctions were held here.

Fountain in Market Square. George Washington drilled his troops here (before the fountain) and slaves were bought and sold here. Farmer's Markets are still held here on Saturday mornings.
Fountain in Market Square. George Washington drilled his troops here (before the fountain) and slaves were bought and sold here. Farmer's Markets are still held here on Saturday mornings. | Source
A plaque on City Hall blandly recalls a significant event here.
A plaque on City Hall blandly recalls a significant event here. | Source

Carlyle House

As long as we are on North Fairfax Street, let's move north along the block a little to the wonderful stone house on the same side as Ramsay House.

Wealthy merchant and customs inspector John Carlyle designed and built this house (completed in 1753) for his marriage to Sarah Fairfax. (Lawrence Washington was married to Ann Fairfax, Sarah’s sister.)

British General Edward Braddock met in the "Blue Room" with the royal governors of Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York to discuss funding the French and Indian War. Lieutenant George Washington (Colonial Army), who attended the meeting, opposed General Braddock’s plan for the Indian campaign -- in which Braddock died and Washington led the troops’ retreat.

Braddock should have listened.

I’m just saying….

Carlyle House from North Fairfax Street.
Carlyle House from North Fairfax Street. | Source
In 1946, Carlyle House was badly in need of refurbishing. In this image from behind Carlyle House,(looking west) the Green Mansion Hotel Complex is visibly impinging on its front lawn.
In 1946, Carlyle House was badly in need of refurbishing. In this image from behind Carlyle House,(looking west) the Green Mansion Hotel Complex is visibly impinging on its front lawn.

Alexandria Bank and Green Mansion (and Hospital)

The Alexandria Bank building next to the Carlyle House was the second purpose-built bank in America. Now a private business, during the War Between the States, the building was part of the James Green Mansion House complex that was the city’s largest hospital for sick and wounded soldiers during the War Between the States.

James Green, a furniture manufacturer, converted the bank building to a hotel and built a four-story addition on the south side in front of Carlyle House around 1855, making the largest hotel in Alexandria.

During the Civil War, the hotel was converted to the largest Union hospital in Alexandria, with a capacity for 700 soldiers

The hotel reopened as the Mansion House Hotel after the war. When ownership changed hands, it became Braddock House and featured such amenities as a telephone and bowling alleys. At the beginning of the twentieth century the luxury hotel was converted to apartments.

When the Northern Virginia Park Authority acquired the property in the early 1970s, the section of the hotel that blocked the view of Carlyle House from North Fairfax Street was demolished.

Across Fairfax Street to City Hall. Notice the signage from when police and fire departments were housed in the building. Near the corner of Fairfax and Cameron, a sign describes the significance of the site relating to the United States Constitution.

Now a private office building, the purpose-built Bank of Alexandria at 133 North Fairfax Street has also served as a luxury hotel and a Civil War hospital, the largest in Alexandria.
Now a private office building, the purpose-built Bank of Alexandria at 133 North Fairfax Street has also served as a luxury hotel and a Civil War hospital, the largest in Alexandria. | Source
As the Green Mansion Hotel, the Bank of America building expanded to conceal the Carlyle House from view. The addition (the taller section) was demolished to reveal the handsome and historic Carlyle House.
As the Green Mansion Hotel, the Bank of America building expanded to conceal the Carlyle House from view. The addition (the taller section) was demolished to reveal the handsome and historic Carlyle House.

Wise's Tavern

201 N. Fairfax at Cameron Street

Directly across Cameron Street on, still on the east side of Fairfax, is the building known as Wise’s (after owner James Wise, who also owned the better- known Gadsby’s) Tavern in the 18th century. A sign on the exterior of the building states that it was here that George Washington was first greeted with the title of President.

Washington danced here at a ball to celebrate ratification of the Constitution in 1788 and at birthday balls in his honor in 1792 and 1794.

Looking to the west along Cameron Street we see …

Wise's Tavern on the corner of North Fairfax and Cameron.
Wise's Tavern on the corner of North Fairfax and Cameron. | Source

City Hall

Looking to the west along Cameron Street we see …

Alexandria City Hall

From the beginning of Alexandria’s existence, the founders planned to have the town hall and market square on the site it still occupies on the 300 block of King Street (the main entrance is on the Cameron Street side).

The earliest town hall and courthouse was built here in 1752. The current building was built in 1871 to replace the one that had burned. The building once formed a 'U' around a central courtyard containing market sheds around Market Square on the south side. Architect Adolph Kluss designed the Second French Empire building to look like the one that had burned. The clock tower is a replica of one designed by Benjamin Latrobe for the earlier town hall built in 1817 and destroyed by the 1871 fire.

City Hall also serves as an art gallery. If you have time to take a look, the second floor is lined with the work of local artists; the exhibition changes twice a year.) George Washington was master of the Masonic Lodge that met in the original city hall. Some of the contents of the lodge, of which General Washington was Master, are now arranged in the Replica Room at the Masonic Temple.

Second French Empire style Alexandria City Hall faces Cameron Street.
Second French Empire style Alexandria City Hall faces Cameron Street. | Source

Gadsby's Tavern

Gadsby’s Tavern actually comprises two buildings, the 1785 Georgian tavern and 1792 Federal-style City Hotel, both of which have been restored to their 18th century condition. Today the buildings are named for Englishman John Gadsby who operated them from 1796 to 1806. It also has been known as the City Tavern, Wise's Tavern, Sign of the Bunch of Grapes and Gadsby's Hotel.

The buildings, used as a tavern and hotel into the late 19th century, served a variety of commercial uses before falling into disrepair. When American Legion Post 24 purchased the buildings in 1929, they returned to the Gadsby’s Tavern designation. The buildings were given to the City of Alexandria, restored, and reopened for the 1976 Bicentennial celebration.

As the largest 18th century gathering place in Alexandria, Gadsby’s hosted dances, theatrical and musical performances and meetings of local organizations. Patrons included John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Paul Jones and the Marquis de Lafayette. George Washington used Gadsby’s as his headquarters when he was colonial of Virginia’s colonial militia and again when he joined General Braddock’s staff.

After he was president, Washington attended the first two birthnight celebrations in his honor at Gadsby’s. The tradition continues today--without the General.

General Washington reviewed his troops for the last time from these steps.

Today, visitors can enjoy lunch or dinner at Gadsby’s or tour the historic rooms of both buildings. Visitors may tour the buildings through the day, but the most memorable tours take place during some of the special events such as the annual Candlelight Tour in December, a particularly charming event with mulled (warm cider with spices) cider and madrigals.

City Hotel (Gadsby's Tavern) during the War Between the States.
City Hotel (Gadsby's Tavern) during the War Between the States.
Gadsby's Tavern and City Hotel today.
Gadsby's Tavern and City Hotel today. | Source
General Washington welcomes Mayor Bill Euillein front room at Gadsby's
General Washington welcomes Mayor Bill Euillein front room at Gadsby's | Source
Dancers enjoy a turn in Gadsby's Ballroom.
Dancers enjoy a turn in Gadsby's Ballroom. | Source
General Washington greets Mayor Bill Euille on the steps of Gadsby's.
General Washington greets Mayor Bill Euille on the steps of Gadsby's. | Source

Gadsby's Ice Well

Gadsby’s Ice Well

On the sidewalk at the corner of Cameron and Royal, notice the ring of dark bricks that marks the boundary of the brick-lined ice well that Mr. Wise added around 1793. One of the few ice wells still in existence, this one, just over 17 feet wide and almost 12 feet deep, held close to 70 tons of ice. It was accessible from the street or through a brick-lined tunnel from the basement.

A viewing area accessible by stairs from the street was added in 1976.

After (lunch and) a tour of Gadsby’s, we can continue west to where it appears that Cameron Street dead-ends at Christ Church on North Washington Street. We will look at Christ’s Church in Part 2, but I’d like to point out two other interesting sites first.

George Washington’s Townhouse

508 Cameron Street

George Washington never slept here either—at least not in this building. The private home is a re-creation of the 1769 town home General Washington built as an office and to accommodate him or his guests when inclement weather made the trip to Mount Vernon undesirable. The General purchased the lot in 1763 and over the next six years built a small house, stable and outbuildings on the site. The original structure was demolished in 1855. This replica was built in 1960.

Reproduction of George Washington's townhouse on the original Cameron Street site.
Reproduction of George Washington's townhouse on the original Cameron Street site. | Source

Fairfax-Yeaton House

607 Cameron Street

Around 1800, William Yeaton, who also designed George Washington’s tomb and the Alexandria Academy (In Part Two of this Walking Tour), built this beautiful private home, occupied by Thomas, Ninth Lord Fairfax (Baron Cameron) and his son Dr. Orlando Fairfax until 1875. Be sure to peek into the lovely garden to the right.

There is plenty more to see, but we have to leave something for Part Two. So, for now, wander about on your own, pull up Part Two, or board the trolley to return to the King Street Metro Station.

Yeaton-Fairfax House, corner of Cameron and St. Asaph streets.
Yeaton-Fairfax House, corner of Cameron and St. Asaph streets. | Source

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Comments 3 comments

Efficient Admin profile image

Efficient Admin 4 years ago from Charlotte, NC

Awesome article! I used to live in Falls Church, VA and loved touring downtown Alexandria on the weekends. We called it the "waterfront". It's a great place to visit. Voted up, interesting, beautiful, awesome!


Clive Donegal profile image

Clive Donegal 4 years ago from En Route Author

Thank you! I have another hub about Alexandria, as well. A third should be ready soon.


lhoxie profile image

lhoxie 2 years ago from Idaho

We were lucky to travel to Alexandria a few years ago. We traveled to the Mall on the metrorail which was really easy. We spent many evenings down at the Torpedo Museum which had entertainers there. They have great restaurants in Alexandria, I love seafood which is plentiful there. You are right, I think it was the most dog friendly city I have ever been in. Great Hub!

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