This stretch of land along the west shore of the Potomac River was the last chunk of the Virginia Tidewater to be settled. In 1748, when Fairfax County was cleaved from Prince William County the town was created and named for a family that had once owned the land. Seventeen-year old George Washington was on the survey crew that laid off the town in streets and 84 half-acre lots. His half-brother Lawrence and brother Augustine were among the initial purchasers. George would later come to own a townhome as well and since it was only eight miles from his beloved estate at Mount Vernon always considered Alexandria his home town.
In 1752 Alexandria was made the county seat. The town was incorporated in 1779 and adopted a seal with a ship in full sail - a nod to the town’s position as one of the busiest ports in young America. Wheat was the main export but the warehouses on the waterfront were also filled with hogsheads of tobacco. The place became so attractive it was given away to the new Federal government to become part of the District of Columbia that was being built in 1799. In 1846 residents longing for a return to Virginia requested Congress to return Alexandria to the Old Dominion. Alexandria County was created and the town set up as its seat; in 1920 the county was changed to Arlington.
The Federal government returned shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War. It became the longest occupied territory of the war but because the city saw little fighting, Alexandria escaped the havoc that obliterated the early history of other Virginia cities. The wooden wharves are gone and the air is no longer permeated by the odor of fish and fertilizer but the streetscape is stuffed with Federal-style brick houses and some of the streets even retain their cobbles. Our exploration will poke around the third oldest historic district in the country and we’ll begin where the city did on the banks of the Potomac...
North Union Street between Oronoco Street and Cameron Street
This area was called West Point by settlers along the Potomac River in the early 1700s. The warehouse that was built here in 1732 was the first permanent structure established on the waterfront and led to the founding of the town. Through the 1800s tobacco was stored on wharves here, African slaves disembarked at the center of the notorious Triangle Trade, and a seasonal community of wharf laborers inhabited a makeshift shantytown known derisively as Fish Town by the river. By 1900 the waterfront was dominated by the Smoot coal and lumber yard. By the 1960s this was just a trash-strewn empty lot. It appeared centuries of unsavoriness would be buried under a quartet of 18-story apartment buildings in the 1970s but a local community effort prevailed in preserving the land as a park.
WALK SOUTH ALONG WATERFRONT WALK WITH THE RIVER ON YOUR LEFT.
The Torpedo Factory
105 North Union Street
This complex was created in 1918 the day after World War I ended as the U.S. Naval Torpedo Station and supplied munitions through World War II. The buildings became government storage space in the 1940s and a hodge-podge of priceless objects could be found here from dinosaur bones belonging to the Smithsonian to German war films for the Pentagon. After the City of Alexandria purchased the building in 1969 it was gutted and renovated to create an art center that today is home to 165 artists in 82 working studios.
Old Dominion Boat Club
One King Street at King Street Park
The Old Dominion Boat Club was organized in July, 1880 to combine physical fitness and sport with a social atmosphere. The very first members were “Alexandrians of the highest order”, leaders of the business, civic and social corridors. The early members were canoeists, swimmers, sailing and rowing enthusiast and eventually power-boating was added to the water sports activities.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK UP TO UNION STREET.
100 King Street at Union Street
This Italianate brick building was added to the Old Town streetscape in 1871. The ground floor was occupied by a grocery store for decades; a corn exchange operated for a time on the second floor. The building stands on ground that was land fill to service the city’s once thriving shipping industry.
TURN LEFT ON UNION STREET. TURN RIGHT ON PRINCE STREET.
Prince Street, between Lee and Union streets
This cobblestoned block is one of Alexandria’s oldest and most picturesque. It was the street of choice for wealthy sea captains to live in the days when Alexandria challenged New York and Boston as a port of entry.
201 Prince Street at Lee Street
Originally constructed as the Bank of the Old Dominion in 1852 and sporting fluted Doric columns, this stuccoed building is one of Alexandria’s two surviving examples of Greek Revival architecture. It only spent about half a century as a bank. After 1907 it was used by a wholesale pharmacy and then as a church. The Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association bought the building in 1964, repaired it, restored it to its current state and renamed it the Athenaeum and remains a showcase for artists and their work.
TURN LEFT ON LEE STREET. TURN RIGHT ON DUKE STREET. TURN LEFT ON FAIRFAX STREET.
Old Presbyterian Meeting House
321 South Fairfax Street
Still active as a church, the Old Presbyterian Meeting House was built in 1775 and was a popular gathering place for patriots during the Revolution. Memorial services for George Washington were held on the this site in December 1799. Lightning ignited a fire that destroyed most of the original structure in 1835. The re-built brick meetinghouse again rose in the Georgian style and the bell tower was added in 1843. With remarkably few subsequent alterations, the rebuilt Meeting House remains an outstanding expression of Reformed Protestant plain style architecture to the present day. Buried in the churchyard is James Craik, the Revolutionary War surgeon who dressed Lafayette’s wounds at Brandywine and attended both George and Martha Washington. Also in the churchyard is the Tomb of the Unknown Solider of the American Revolution, whose identity “is known only to God.”
WALK AROUND THE CHURCH AND INTO THE CHURCHYARD. CONTINUE ON TO ROYAL STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
Saint Mary Catholic Church
310 South Royal Street
St. Mary’s was established in 1795 and is the oldest Catholic parish in the Commonwealth of Virginia. To fund the church, Colonel John Fitzgerald took up a collection. According to church lore, Fitzgerald’s good friend George Washington made the first donation. A chapel was built at the south end of the city, on land still used today as St. Mary’s Cemetery. In 1810, St. Mary’s moved to its present location in the heart of the city.
AT PRINCE STREET TURN RIGHT AND WALK A FEW STEPS.
Benevolent Protective Order of Elks Lodge #758
318 Prince Street
The Benevolent Protective Order of Elks was founded in New York City in 1868 in the theater district. At first they referred to themselves as the Jolly Corks. A gathering of 50 men organized the Alexandria Elks Lodge #758 on February 9, 1902 and before the year was out had purchased the ornate Concordia Hotel that had stood on the corner of Royal and Prince streets since 1880. In 1909 the building was razed to make way for this lodge, designed in the exuberant Beaux Arts style by Ernest Flagg. It features ornamental pilasters, limestone keys and a cornice with dentils. The handsome bronze elk arrived with great fanfare to be fitted into the alcove in 1910. It weighs a half-ton - just like a large bull elk. The Elks moved out in the mid-20th century and the classical building was redeveloped as a condominium.
TURN AND WALK WEST ON PRINCE STREET, AWAY FROM THE POTOMAC RIVER.
201 South Washington Street at Prince Street
Erected in 1839 as a lecture hall and reading room, the city’s first cultural center now preserves Alexandria history from its founding in 1749. The two-story brick building was stuccoed and scored to simulate fashionable stone blocks behind its tall Doric portico. The Lyceum was used as a hospital during the Civil War.
TURN RIGHT ON WASHINGTON STREET.
118 North Washington Street
Completed in 1773 on plans by James Wren, this Georgian brick Episcopal church is Alexandria’s oldest. Centered on the west facade is a square tower supporting an octagonal belfry in three stages, and a domed cupola that were added in the early 1800s. When Christ church opened George Washington purchased Pew 60 for 36 pounds and 10 shillings. It is preserved in the active church today. Robert E. Lee was confirmed here; Confederate officers and a mass Confederate grave are on the grounds.
220 North Washington Street
This brick corner house built in 1793 by John wise stands as one of the finest examples of residential architecture in Old Town Alexandria. The broad gabled roof has three dormer windows set off by slender pilasters. The beautifully designed doorway is framed by Corinthian pilasters and a broken pediment over the round-arched fanlight. The Lloyd family owned the house for over 100 years beginning in 1832. Lloyd House currently serves as the administrative headquarters for the Office of Historic Alexandria, a department of the City of Alexandria government.
STOP AT PRINCESS STREET.
The transition from dirt streets in 18th century Alexandria was accomplished with cobblestones. According to legend, Hessian soldiers provided the labor to pave Princess Street with cobblestones. These cobbles remained essentially untouched until 1979, when the street was restored using the original cobbles.
CONTINUE TO ORONOCO STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
614 Oronco Street
As a 20-year old in 1776, Harry Lee abandoned plans for a law career and secured an appointment as a captain in the Virginia cavalry. The greatest success for “Light Horse” Harry Lee came under Nathanael Greene in the Carolinas in 1781, which propelled him into state and national politics after the war. Lee worked in the Second Continental Congress and served Virginia as governor between 1792 and 1795. Later, he was a U.S. congressman. He bought three half-acre lots in Alexandria in 1784; on this one Philip Richard Fendall built a three-section telescoping house more commonly seen on the Maryland Eastern Shore. Beginning in 1937 this was the home of influential labor leader John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, and he lived here until his death in 1969. In 1974 the Virginia Trust for Historic Preservation acquired the house and it has been a house museum ever since; many of the artifacts were owned by the 37 Lee family members who lived in the house from 1785 until 1903.
Boyhood Home of Robert E. Lee
607 Oronco Street
John Potts, merchant and first secretary of George Washington’s Potomac Company, built this Georgian brick house in 1795. Four years later he sold the house to William Fitzhugh, the largest landholder in Fairfax County, for $12,000. Fitzhugh died in 1809 and two years later his distant relative, Harry Lee moved in with his family, including four-year old Robert Edward. Economic reversals had led to his imprisonment and the authorship of a personal history of the Revolution, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States. Young Robert E. Lee spent many of his formative years in this house, twice living here for five-year periods before leaving in 1825. The house did 20th century duty as a house museum before returning to a private residence.
TURN RIGHT ON PITT STREET AND WALK TO CAMERON STREET. TURN LEFT. TURN RIGHT ON ROYAL STREET.
Gadsby’s Tavern Museum
138 North Royal Street
In Colonial America, Alexandria was the most developed settlement on the main north-south road between Baltimore and Fredericksburg, and the City Tavern, built in 1770, was the hub for social and political goings-on. John Gadsby became proprietor in 1794. George Washington was a frequent visitor and participated in the first Birthnight Ball in celebration in his honor in 1798. In November 1799 he made his final military review from the tavern steps. The museum consists of two 18th century brick buildings - the tavern and the City Hotel.
TURN LEFT ON KING STREET.
480 King Street at Royal Street
Hotel Monaco Alexandria doesn’t just make history ― it is history. The hotel sits on the site of the former Marshall House, the location of the beginning of the Civil War. On May 24, 1861, an altercation between the innkeeper, secessionist James W. Jackson, and Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, leader of the 11th New York Infantry “Fire Zouaves,” led to a melee and both men became the first two martyrs of the Civil War. On May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia’s secession was ratified by referendum, President Abraham Lincoln looked out from the White House across the Potomac River, and saw a large Confederate flag prominently displayed over the town of Alexandria. Ellsworth immediately offered to retrieve the flag for Lincoln. He led the 11th New York across the Potomac and into the streets of Alexandria uncontested. He detached some men to take the railroad station, while he led others to secure the telegraph office and get that Confederate flag, which was flying above the Marshall House Inn. Ellsworth and four men went upstairs and cut down the flag. As Ellsworth came downstairs with the flag, the owner, Jackson, killed him with a shotgun blast to the chest. Corporal Francis E. Brownell, of Troy, New York, immediately killed Jackson. Brownell was later awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions.
301 King Street
From the time of its founding in 1749 this ground was designated for a market and city hall. The core of the current building dates to 1871 when it replaced a city hall that had stood since 1817 and was destroyed by fire. Adolph Cluss, a go-to architect across the river in Washington D.C., designed the U-shaped building around a central courtyard. The focus of City Hall, its steepled tower is a reconstruction of the original created by pioneer architect Benjamin H. Latrobe. On the southern half of the City Hall block is a plaza completed in 1967 during an urban renewal project. Through the years, the City Hall building has undergone several interior and exterior alterations including filling in the old courtyard.
TURN RIGHT ON SOUTH FAIRFAX STREET AND WALK DOWN A FEW STEPS.
105-107 South Fairfax Street
Edward Stabler, a Quaker pharmacist, moved to Alexandria in 1792 and opened one of America’s oldest apothecary shops at King and Fairfax streets in 1792; he rented this property four years later. A pantheon of America’s greatest statesmen had their prescription filled here. Among the famous names in the account books is that of Robert E. Lee - in October 1859 United States Army colonel Lee was shopping in the drugstore when Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart handed him an order to report to western Virginia and suppress John Brown’s raid on the Federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. The shop stayed in the family until it closed during the Depression and was re-opened as a museum in 1939.
TURN AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON FAIRFAX STREET, WALKING NORTH.
Burke & Herbert Bank
100 South Fairfax Street at KIng Street
Founded in 1852, this is the oldest bank in Virginia. The founding partners, John Woolfolk Burke and Arthur Herbert were each still in their twenties at the time. There were three other banks operating in Alexandria at the time. This splendid Beaux Arts building with multiple arches, strong Doric columns and balustraded roof has been the bank’s headquarters since 1904.
221 King Street
There is evidence that the earliest parts of this house date to the 1720s and were moved to this location where they were assembledon this location by Scottish merchant William Ramsay. Through the decades the house has done duty as a tavern, grocery store, rooming house and cigar factory. Much of the original structure was destroyed by a fire in 1942 but the City purchased and restored the house and it serves as a visitor center today.
121 North Fairfax House
British general Edward Braddock made the 1753 stone mansion built in the Palladian style by Scottish merchant John Carlyle his headquarters in the spring of 1755. In the splendid parlor Braddock summoned five Royal governors to plan the financing for his campaign against the French and Indians in America. The result was the detested Stamp Act, which would help provoke the Revolution. George Washington was commissioned as an aide-de-camp to Braddock in this house. Following Carlyle’s death, his oldest daughter Sarah lived in the house with her family. By 1827, the house was no longer owned by the family, and over the next century and a half, passed through many hands. The site served a variety of purposes including a hospital during the Civil War, a hotel and a private residence. In 1970, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority acquired the property. After six years of restoration, the house and gardens were opened to the public as a museum.
TURN RIGHT ON CAMERON STREET AND TURN LEFT ON UNION STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN FOUNDERS PARK.