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Alexandria, Virginia, where (more) history lives

Updated on September 5, 2012

Friendship Firehouse

If you are joining the action in media res , you might want to begin with the first part of this walking tour, (Alexandria; Where History Lives). If you have followed the first section, you are probably standing on Columbus Street near the west-side entrance of Christ Church. Cameron Street runs west straight ahead, unless you have turned back to look again at the entrance to Christ Church. Recall that Cameron loops around Christ Church before continuing its original path because when the church was built, it was in the woods at the west end of Cameron Street. As the city expanded, the church site became more central.

Entrance to Christ Church from Columbus Street (East) side
Entrance to Christ Church from Columbus Street (East) side | Source
Christ Church from Washington Street
Christ Church from Washington Street | Source

Old Town's Street Layout

Notice that Old Town is laid out in a neat grid system. The east-west streets in the center of town honor royalty, in descending order of importance, males to the south. So, traveling south from King, leads to Prince and then Duke streets. Moving north from King after Cameron (in honor of Lord Fairfax, Baron Cameron, who lived on the street) come Queen and Princess streets.

After the royal streets, the names are less logical. South of Duke, for example comes Wolfe, in honor of the British general who defeated French General Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham near Quebec in 1759, effectively winning the French and Indian Wars. Moving north, past Princess, comes Oronoco Street, named for a type of tobacco. Alexandria's first tobacco warehouses were at West’s Point at the foot of this street, now, the site of Robinson Terminal, where the Washington Post stores tons of newsprint.

Moving west, the streets are named after other notables, including Revolutionary War leaders. Route I north, for example, is Patrick Street, Route I south is Henry. A U-turn from the south allows a traveler to follow Patrick-Henry, which explains the rush hour plaint heard from literate drivers, to “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

Enamel portrait on equipment in Friendship Firehouse
Enamel portrait on equipment in Friendship Firehouse | Source
Friendship Firehouse
Friendship Firehouse | Source

Friendship Firehouse

Assuming you are facing Cameron, you see townhouses across the street on what was the site of one of the city’s three sugar refineries. In the early 19th century, Alexandria was the third largest source of refined sugar in the United States, producing some 800,000 pounds a year.

Not much to see here now, so let’s turn left toward King Street at the next intersection, where we turn right and walk another block to Alfred Street, where we turn left and walk a half block to the Friendship Firehouse Museum at 107 South Alfred Street, which is just a right (west) turn on King and then a left (south) on South Alfred. It is the building with a fireman weathervane on top of the cupola, which had been painted colonial white, until examination proved that it had originally been painted as you see it now. (I’m color blind; you are on your own.)

The firehouse contains historic photographs, exhibits and antique fire equipment, including leather buckets and hand-drawn fire engines, with a nineteenth century meeting room on the second floor.

Established in 1774, Friendship Fire Company was Alexandria’s first volunteer fire company, although this building dates only from1855, and it has been remodeled and renovated. The original building—um—burned down. Of course, George Washington was a charter subscriber. According to undocumented tradition, he also was a founder and donated its first fire engine. As pictures on the second floor indicate, the company became as well-known for its social and ceremonial functions as for fire-fighting.

As you walk around town, notice the fire company marks on many of the old homes. These plaques showed firefighters that the house was insured and with which fire company. A fire company arriving on the scene that had another company’s mark would not attempt to fight the fire.

The hours for this museum are a little quirky, so I suggest that you check the website for current information. ( At this writing, it is open Sat 10-4 and Sunday 1-4. Admission is $2.00.

From the Firehouse, continue walking south to Prince Street. On your left is the unobtrusive four-star, pet-friendly Morrison House Hotel, but for now we turn left (east) at Prince Street and walk the two blocks to South Washington Street. The Lyceum, Alexandria’s history museumsince 1985 (, is just to the right, at 201 South Washington. (Don’t tell them I said so, but I think that the building itself is more interesting than the limited exhibits inside.)

Alexandria's History Museum

The Alexandria Lyceum
The Alexandria Lyceum | Source

The Lyceum: Alexandria's History Museum

A prominent Quaker named Benjamin Hallowell built the Lyceum to house the Alexandria Library Company and to provide meeting space for the scholarly society (The Alexandria Lyceum) he had established. The group had met at Mr. Hallowell’s boarding school at 609 Oronoco Street (five blocks north and a half block east), from 1864 until the new building was ready. Reputedly a brilliant mathematician, Mr. Hallowell had tutored young Robert E. Lee who lived next door (at 607 Oronoco) to help him prepare to attend West Point Military Academy. General Lee’s cousin Anne and her husband, John Wise, who owned both Wise’s and Gadsby’s taverns, had lived in the home before Mr. Hallowell converted it into his school.

Young Master Lee had attended Alexandria Academy, was founded by George Washington (of course) and other civic leaders. (If you would like to see the old Alexandria Academy, walk south along Washington Street until you cross Wolf. Alexandria Academy the second building on the east side of that block, set back from the street.)

During the War Between the States, the Union troops occupying Alexandria commandeered the building as one of the 30 or so hospitals in the city. After the war, the Lyceum was used as a private home, an office building and the country’s first Bicentennial Center. Now the upstairs is used for events and performances.

You might have noticed a statue in the middle of the intersection of Washington and Prince. If not, take a look now.

Appomattox: The Confederate Soldier Statue
Appomattox: The Confederate Soldier Statue | Source

The Confederate Statue: Appomattox

Aha! The statue, usually called the Confederate soldier, is actually called “Appomattox,” after John Elder’s painting by the same name. The melancholy-looking statue is modeled after a soldier in Elder’s painting, which depicts General Robert E. Lee’s surrender there on April 9, 1865.

Its location marks the spot where the city’s roughly 800 Confederate troops gathered when Colonel Ellsworth and about ten thousand Union troops took possession of Alexandria on May 24, 1861.The Confederate soldiers, who concurred with Mr. Falstaff that “discretion is the better part of valor,” gathered at the intersection of Prince and South Washington streets, two blocks west and one south of Marshall House, where Col. Ellsworth met his end that same morning. They then marched about three miles west along Duke Street to the Edsall Road train station, to take the Orange and Alexandria Railroad to join the 17th Virginia Infantry at Manassas Junction. Alexandria remained in Union hands for the next four years.

When the statue was dedicated on May 24, 1889, Virginia Governor Fitzhugh Lee, General Robert E. Lee’s nephew and himself a former major general in the Army of Northern Virginia, joined General Joseph E. Johnston, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, in delivering dedicatory addresses.

The Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation in 1890, providing that permission to erect the statue “shall not be repealed, revoked, altered, modified, or changed by any future Council or other municipal power or authority,” but the statue periodically has roiled controversy among those who would have it removed, and, I submit, deny history.

Engraved in the pedestal are the names of 100 Alexandria soldiers who died in the war, along with the reminder that, right or wrong, “They died in the consciousness of duty faithfully performed.”

The name of James W. Jackson, the innkeeper who killed Colonel Ellsworth at Marshall House was added to the east side of the statue in 1900.

Dulany House
Dulany House | Source

Dulany House

Well, looking both ways, let’s cross to the east side of Washington Street and continue to the end of the 600 block of Duke Street. Benjamin Dulany, a Tory and close friend of General and Mrs. Washington, lived at 601 Duke. Mr. Dulany, who joined Gen. Washington in laying the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol and who had given Gen. Washington his favorite horse, Blueskin, for the duration of the war, was married to a Elizabeth French, who had lived with the Washingtons at Mount Vernon. The Dulanys were frequent dinner guests at Mount Vernon, about ten miles south on Washington Street.

When the Marquis de Lafayette, another close friend of the Washingtons, came to Alexandria in 1824, he addressed the welcoming crowd from these front steps, a short distance from the home in which the Marquis was staying at 301 South St. Asaph Street.

Lafayette House

The day after Congress commissioned the 19-year-old marquis as a major general (July 31, 1777) he met General Washington. When the Marquis returned to Alexandria, he spent a month in the house at 301 South St. Asaph. His son, George Washington Montier de Lafayette, lived at Mount Vernon with the Washingtons for five years, while his father was in prison during the French Revolution.

On his last visit to the city, Lafayette offered a toast to Alexandria: “May her prosperity and happiness more and more realize the fondest wishes of our venerated Washington.”

Eleanor (Nelly) and Laurence Lewis lived here in 1831. Nelly Custis, who had been raised by her grandparents, George and Martha Washington, married Laurence Lewis, George Washington’s nephew, at Mount Vernon on Washington’s last birthday, February 22, 1799.

Again, these are private homes and not open to visitors.

The Marshall House Hotel

Continuing to walk east on Prince Street for another block, turn left at South Pitt Street and walk another block to the Hotel Monaco, on the site of the Marshall House. Before the Marshall House Hotel was torn down, souvenir hunters had taken bits of floor and fabric from the site where Colonel Ellsworth and Jim Jackson, had both died on that morning in May. A plaque in the King Street side commemorates that event, and the Jackson 20 restaurant in the hotel is named in honor of… President Andrew Jackson? That’s what they claim.

Quelle coincidence, n’est pas?

(I would never suggest that political correctness might enter into it.)

Unless you want to stop for a bite to eat, this might be a good time to jump on the trolley and head back to our starting point at the Masonic Temple. But if you’d like to take a look at The Spite House, which has been listed in the Guinness Record Book as the narrowest in America, at 523 Queen Street, two streets north and second house to the right on the left hand side.

Spit House, circa 1925
Spit House, circa 1925

The Spite House

John Hollensbury was tired of the neighbors’ carriage wheels grinding against the wall of his house when they entered the alley next door, so, in 1830, the brick-maker bought the space out of spite and filled it with a house for his daughters. The interior walls of the seven-foot wide house, which Ripley once identified as the narrowest house in America -- believe it or not-- still show the marks left by carriage wheels on the exterior walls of the adjoining houses. At 36 feet deep, the two-story house, which the current owners use as a pied-a-terre when they visit Old Town, is not for hoarders.

When the Washington Post reported on this story in 1906, it included a virtual tour:

The George Washington Masonic Memorial

Now if you want to wander back to King Street, two blocks south, you can catch the King Street Trolley to visit the George Washington Masonic Memorial, one of Alexandria’s best kept secrets—and a “National Treasure.”

District of Columbia Boundary Markers

In the first section of Alexandria history, I briefly mentioned the nearby boundary marker, one of the original markers that delineated the borders of the federal city that George Washington envisioned. In 1789, Virginia and Maryland ceded some of their land to establish the new federal capital city. In 1791, Surveyor Andrew Ellicott and his assistant, a young African American named Benjamin Banneker, marked the boundaries. Amid great pomp and ceremony on April 15 of that year, Mayor Philip Marsteller and a delegation of free masons laid the first of the cornerstones at Jones Point (where the Wilson Bridge now connects Virginia and Maryland). That marker (or possibly a 794 replacement) is still visible in an opening near the seawall close to the Jones Point lighthouse; look down into the opening to see what remains of the southern cornerstone.

Other extant boundary markers stand along the southwestern line of Alexandria, District of Columbia: Southwest Mile Marker 1 at the southeast corner of Wilkes and Payne streets; this Southwest Mile Marker 2 at the east side of Russell Road north of King Street; Southwest Mile Marker 3 at the north end of the First Baptist Church parking lot, 2900 King Street. The Daughters of the American Revolution erected the fences that protect each.

Now, if you have some time, you might want to visit the U.S. Patent and Trade Office Museum, the Freedom House Slave Museum, Alexandria National (Soldiers) Cemetery.


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