OLD TOWNE, ALEXANDRIA: WALKING THROUGH COLONIAL AMERICA
Roland G. Simbulan
(This article was originally published in the July 9, 2000 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer)
If you want to experience more than three centuries of American history in a single day, take a walk through Old Towne, Alexandria, in Virginia.
In the Philippine summer and American spring of 1996, when I was on a Research Fellowship in the Washington, D.C. area, I spent almost a month as a resident of the reconstructed colonial town of Old Towne. Since then, it has become one of my favorite places in the urban jungles of the United States, matched only by New York City’s Lower East Side and Greenwich Village. I had the chance to visit it again last April (2000).
The quaint city of Alexandria is a mere five miles away from downtown Washington D.C., and was once one of the busiest seaports in America.
Situated just across the Potomac River from Washington,D.C., Alexandria has blossomed from being an estate named after a Virginia plantation and slave owner, John Alexander, who, in 1669, was said to have acquired the land on which the town began. In 1749, Alexandria was incorporated as a town and grew quickly into a major port. It also became the northern state’s gateway to the south by rail. From 1801 to 1847, it was part of the District of Columbia and was later occupied by Federal troops of the Union during the Civil War.
Alexandria would be “requisitioned” from 1861 to 1865 as headquarters for the US Military Railroad under the northern Union forces led by US President Abraham Lincoln. This was while the rest of the state of Virginia (of which Alexandria was a part) would vote to secede from the Union and join the rebel Confederate forces of the South.
By the early 20th century, Alexandria had also become a major railroad center. Since 1946, it has been considered an important historic district in the US while serving as the “Fun Side of the Potomac.” Today recorded as one of the United States’ oldest ports, Alexandria has a surprisingly miniscule land area of 15.75 square miles and an estimated population of 115,000 (as of 1999).
The Alexandria that I rediscovered is a very unique city: a blend of America’s earliest history, with George Washington calling it his “home –where no estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this…” along with his plantation in Mt. Vernon where he lived and died, and the future, with many high-tech companies nestled and doing business among historic townhomes. It is a good model for architectural preservation for our own Intramuros and many historic cities (especially Manila) and our vintage Hispanic towns(which are even older by two centuries!)
I was told that because of its close proximity to the US capital, Alexandria has had to balance growth with preserving the qualities that make the city great. For if you venture south of King Street near the Potomac River, you will see that the city looks much as it did during the days of the American founding fathers. The numerous historic landmarks blend easily with the modern conveniences of the information age.
But the heart of Alexandria City is the historic Old Towne (spelled officially as Old Town) and its main road, King Street. The best way to experience Old Towne is on foot, and you can literally walk through colonial history.
Long-time residents will proudly tell you that Old Towne is the “Paris of Virginia” because it is a “place for leisure.” Here, in the midst of restaurants, nightspots and historic shops, one can stroll down 10 blocks of cobbled streets to the brick-and-stone colonial style residential houses, the restored old buildings converted to wonderful boutiques, intriguing antique shops and fascinating art galleries. One can smell the wooden houses arranged along the sidewalks as if time had never passed. Quaint colonial homes line King Street, as well as North Washington, Patrick and Duke Streets.
Here, I visited the stately boyhood home of the young Robert E. Lee, the Civil War’s most famous confederate general. At Gadsby’s Tavern which was built in the 1700s, I enjoyed drinking a couple of Budweisers with friends and, later, a few blocks away, my family had an outdoor picnic along the bustling Potomac riverfront.
At Old Towne, US history is fully restored and reconstructed. The buildings and grounds reflect the sense of history and grace that make Old Towne so seductive and irresistible. If the American leaders like Washington, Lee and George Mason were to take a stroll along Old Towne today, they would still recognize their hometown because of the meticulous preservation of hundreds of early public buildings, townhouses and private homes.
Some of the finest examples of Georgian architecture are found here — in the brick dwellings with gambrel roofs, stone belt courses and window lintels, with carved wood or stone cornices. Centuries-old trees are lined alongside pieds-a-terre, producing a truly picture–perfect setting. Indeed, the vertiginous streetscapes begged me to take photographs at almost every corner. It was as if three centuries of American history were courting my camera.
There is an air of civility in Old Towne that I haven’t found anywhere else in the United States. As I walked through the cobbled streets once frequented by Washington, I could smell boxwood and sweet bay in the narrow alleys. I peeked through ornamental wrought-iron gates and saw pre-Civil War houses. Some of the houses had small “pleasure gardens” with fruit trees and beds of seasonal blooms — which, I could imagine, provided a peaceful haven in the urban setting.
The town’s genteel roots had an aristocratic plantation society flourishing. Vestiges of that plantation economy remain in the form of more than 2,000 buildings and townhouses built before 1860, most of them classically restored.
But the terrible irony that shook me was that the beauty one still sees today was made possible by the institution of slavery.
They say that Old Towne’s most elegant early residence is the Carlyle House. This Georgian mansion was built in 1753 and was owned by one of Alexandria’s founders. Restored today with period furnishings, including the masterbed which I noticed had pulley curtains, it was the meeting place for events which led to the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Revolutionary War.
Here, a bit earlier in 1755, British general Edward Braddock met with five American colonial governors, to discuss the strategy against the French. There are slave quarters at the lower level of this distinguished house.
The Alexandria Slave Pen located at Duke Street also tells of its former function as a slave auction house under the business address of “Franklin and Armfield.” This was converted into a prison during the Civil War, to hold local civilians and erring soldiers of the Union.
Here, as I mentioned earlier, you will also find General Lee’s boyhood townhome which was leased by his father, the revolutionary war here “Light Horse” Harry Lee in 1812. A short breath away is the Alexandria City Hall which has on its front gorgeous European-styled fountains facing King Street.
At Old Towne, one cannot miss Gadsby’s Tavern, now with a museum, but which is today also one of the few surviving 18th century taverns in the United States. Gadsby;s regularly hosted George Washington, then the general of the American Revolutionary Army and later America’s first president. It also hosted and was visited regularly by Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Adams, George Mason, including the Marquis de Lafayette and other American colonial elites and leaders.
Today, not only is the tavern culture revived; there is also a second-floor ballroom with a hanging gallery for musicians which served as the site of inaugural balls. The renowned ballroom was called the Great Assembly Room, and it is still made remarkable today by the magnificent scroll pediments over the doorways and mantels.
It was at Gadsby’s Tavern that George Washington dined and danced the night away – a la
ballroom dancing! – with the first American First Lady, Martha Washington. It is said that, one morning in 1798, from the steps of Gadsby’s, Washington was honored with a pass and review parade by the Alexandria Independent Infrantry Blues.
The Lyceum, originally built in 1839 as a cultural center and library, was also used as a hospital during the Civil War. It is now Alexandria’s History Museum. Appropriately, the Lyceum’s Greek Revival structure today serves as an educational and cultural focal point. Its Lecture Hall was where philosophers, politicians and scientists spoke before the Civil War, and now it still hosts a variety of public events.
When I last visited Old Towne, there was an interesting exhibit at the Lyceum: ” The Age of Elegance”, which gave a glimpse of the American aristocrats’ clothes and accessories in the 18th century. It showed the art of dress and clothing as a ritual of conspicuous bourgeois consumption.
And then there’s Ramsay House which was originally built in 1724 by William Ramsay, a Scottish tobacco merchant and city founder. If you ever get lost in Old Towne, lookup this house, the oldest in Alexandria. It now conveniently serves as the city’s visitor center along King Street.
There is also the Friendship Fire House which you shouldn’t miss. It was established in 1774 and was the first volunteer fire company in Alexandria. The firehouse retains its metal tracks on the original scrub-pine floor inside, which guided horse-drawn fire carriages.
Also still standing is the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, built in 1774 and the site of the memorial services for George Washington. His pew is preserved with a marker at Christ Church, the city’s oldest church, where Robert E. Lee was confirmed. The church holds the graves of the city’s early residents and the veterans of the American Revolution. This church is difficult to overlook because of its beautifully carved sandstone door, and its Greek and Romanesque Revival architecture marked by a corner tower and a semi-circular masonry arch on short fat columns.
The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary is now a shop museum. But from 1792 to 1934, this was the local botica – a thriving drugstore. Opened in 1792 by a young Quaker pharmacist, Edward Stabler, the shop was in business for 141 years until it closed down during the Great Depression.
Prominent regular patrons included the Washingtons, Mason, Lee and Daniel Webster. Most of the Apothecary’s original interior woodwork is well preserved, as well as the company records and prescriptions.
In Alexandria, there is also the Gunston Hall Plantation. Built in 1755, it was the colonial plantation home of George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which became the basis for the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution. It was that Constitution which declared “equality for all men, ” though, one might note, black slavery and non-suffrage for women were to remain institutions in American for more than a century afterwards. Add to this the fact that these principles of human rights were not then intended to apply for the next 150 years to the colored peoples of the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rice, Hawaii, Guam or the South Pacific islands!
Active Part of Old Towne
Located on Alexandria’s historic waterfront at the foot of Old Towne’s King Street is the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Truly an example of “swords turned into plowshares, ” the factory was a leading manufacturer of torpedoes for the US Navy during World Wars I and II.
This was a very active US Naval Torpedo Station during World War II, with 5,000 employees and three daily work shifts seven days a week. It was converted in 1974 into an art center and has since become a sort of mecca for art in metropolitan Washington, D.C.
Overlooking the Potomac River, the former factory now houses the studios of 160 professional artists, making Alexandria one of the top 25 art destinations in America, according to the American Style Magazine in 1998. The clipper ships that made this port the third busiest in the US colonies are gone, but the waterfront remains vibrant.
Coffee shops abound in Old Towne, with one in almost every block. One of them, a favorite hangout of maverick intellectuals, artists, nonconformists or simply the discriminating coffee-drinkers in Alexandria, is Misha’s Coffee Roaster & Coffeehouse.
Unofficially, I can recommend it as the best coffeehouse in the entire Washington, D.C. metropolitan area ( including its suburbs in Virginia and Maryland).
It was an instant hit for me, even before my sister Teresa and her husband Romel Simon introduced Misha’s as having “the best coffee you’ll ever have.” Misha’s has its own seven-foot-tall roaster machine sitting right beside the coffee tables and surrounded by heavy bean bags from such places as Papua New Guinea, Puerto Rico and Ethiopia.
Sipping coffee in this shop — or anywhere else in the magical “back to the future” Old Towne — is one of the best ways of looking back at an America that once had a taste of a glorious anti-colonial revolution.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in Sept 26th 2005