We also love this image, which seems to give a nod to the franchise's New York years.
Enjoy the parade today, and thank you Giants!!!
We also love this image, which seems to give a nod to the franchise's New York years.
Enjoy the parade today, and thank you Giants!!!
Just south of Old Town Alexandria, and sandwiched in between the Potomac River and Telegraph Road, lie the hills of Southeast Fairfax County. Dotting these wooded heights overlooking the historic seaport, the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland, are neighborhoods and bedroom communities such as Huntington, Belle Haven, Penn-Daw and Groveton. Splitting the middle and winding its way from Great Hunting Creek to the top of Beacon Hill runs Historic Route 1/Richmond Highway Corridor.
Needless to say, there is not as much history in these parts as are found in Alexandria and the nation’s capital, but there are certainly stories to be told. Although I have not conducted a full scale search as I did for my book on historical markers in Old Town Alexandria, it is my impression this two miles by two miles portion of Fairfax County is underserved in the way of historical marking.
Deciding which aspects of an area’s history to commemorate is an immense challenge. Perhaps some day such an effort will be made for this part of Southeast Fairfax County, but for here and now, here is a humble attempt to get the ball rolling.
Let’s start with three historic manors and their occupants. Grab a tissue folks, because each of these places, as well as other almost all of the older dwellings between Groveton and Alexandria, has been wiped off the face of the earth. No historic markers exist, nor any physical reminders.
Most fortunately we have the work of some historians who cared deeply about Fairfax County. One shining beacon is the late Edith Moore Sprouse, who spent countless hours researching and wrote many a fine article. We owe much to Nan Netherton and her book on Mount Eagle. I supplemented my own research with a conversation with Harry and Anna Marie Lehman, who lived in City View. Charlotte Brown, author of Groveton, provided great information on Spring Bank, and Ed Hines gave rich insight on the Quander family.
City View I and II
Location: Beacon Center, 6600 Richmond Highway
Currently There: Beacon Center
Precise Location: Historic Aerials indicate City View’s modern day equivalent was in front of the Panera and steps south of Famous Dave’s Restaurant.
We start at the top of Beacon Hill in Groveton, the tallest point around these parts at about 250 feet, and about halfway between Alexandria and Mount Vernon. Some Alexandrians who made their money in the seaport retreated to the quiet and solitude of the hills south of the city. One such man was Benjamin Barton (1820-1897), who built his county home on land we now know as the Beacon Center in Groveton.
From his shop on King Street, just a few blocks from the waterfront, Barton earned a sterling reputation as a master clock and watchmaker. He learned the trade from his father, as did his brother Thomas. Barton, Eliza and their three children lived at 31 South Royal Street. He maintained the City Clock at City Hall and became President of the Hydraulicon Steam Fire Company, a position he held for 42 years.
After he retired, Barton purchased a 74-acre farm. In his book, “Dixie Clockmakers,” author James W. Gibbs notes the location was three miles south of Alexandria on the Mount Vernon Road. A cottage was located there during the Civil War. In 1868, Barton built a country house and named it “City View.” He died there in 1887. The Alexandria Gazette wrote that an overflow crowd of mourners poured into 2nd Presbyterian Church. Barton was laid to rest at Ivy Hill Cemetery on upper King Street, a high spot itself overlooking the city where Barton was revered.
After City View burned down in 1918, W.F.P Reid Sr. (married to Sallie K. Pickett) built City View II on the same high ground. The history of this beautiful home is covered like a blanket at Friends of Beacon Field Airport. Harry and Anna Marie Lehman tell us the four-story Greek dwelling with 25 rooms and four front columns was, “visually massive and a prominent landmark on Route 1.” In 1954, the Alexandria Gazette called it “one of the area’s finest homes.”
(Note: Photo of City View courtesy Harry Lehman, Anna Marie Hicks. Be sure and check out their wonderful website).
In the early 1930s, the City View tract became home to Beacon Field Airport, named after the country’s navigational beacon program. During different periods of time, entertainment events were held there, including horse shows, carnivals and air shows. After World War II, commercial airline pilots received their aviation training at Beacon Field.
Beacon Field had two runways. The south-north footprint survives on the straight line of landscape running behind the Beacon Center from the Giant to the Target store. The east-west runway ended at about where Chipotle now stands and at the intersection of Southgate and King’s Highway.
An observation room on top of City View provided a “magnificent panoramic view” of Alexandria, Washington, Fort Washington in Maryland and the Potomac River. Reid no doubt showed off this view to guests such as Ulysses S. Grant II and Arthur Godfrey.
City View II, once surrounded by dairy farms, gained many neighbors in the middle of the 20th-century as the population in Fairfax County grew from 40,000 in 1940 to 275,000 in 1960. Down the hill towards Alexandria, Penn-Daw had become a motor inn mecca for travelers along Route 1. Some of the visitors and many of the locals ate at the Dixie Pig Restaurant, a culinary landmark that stood for many years across the street from City View II.
City View’s long run ended in 1959 when it was torn down. The Giant grocery store rose up on the historic footprint (Lehman recalled the front door was located on the south side facing Memorial Street and the Groveton High School). Other stores at the Beacon Mall followed, which rebranded its name to the “Beacon Center” several years ago.
Thanks to the efforts of the Lehman’s, a Fairfax County historical marker for Beacon Field was erected in 2010 and stands near the corner of Route 1 and Memorial Avenue. A new restaurant at 6900 Richmond Highway (about 1/3 mile to the south), on tap to open in 2015, will pay homage to this lost landmark with its name – City View Restaurant.
Location: Top of Mount Eagle Drive near Huntington Metro
Built: 1790, Torn Down: 1968
Now: Montebello Condominium
City View stood at the highest point in this portion of Fairfax County, but bragging rights for best views might have gone to Mount Eagle. Its lofty perch was less than a mile from the southern edge of Alexandria and about a mile closer than City View. This proximity to Great Hunting Creek, the Potomac River, and the bustling seaport of Alexandria made it a witness to a lot of history.
Native Americans who fished and lived on the banks of Great Hunting Creek might have caught their first glimpse of the approaching colonial ships from the future site of Mount Eagle. Some of those pioneers from Europe who settled here were land speculators and tobacco planters who arrived in the latter part of the 17th-century. One such colonial was John Colville, who owned a large tract between Alexandria and the future site of Mount Eagle. His plantation was called Cleesh. The modern day equivalent for Cleesh is Huntington and the surrounding neighborhoods.
Colville is an overlooked early player who provides us with one of the greatest “what if’s” in these parts. In the 1730s, the Virginia House of Burgess wanted to establish a tobacco inspection station somewhere on or near Great Hunting Creek. Colville, along with John Minor and Philip Alexander, competed against a group featuring Hugh West, John Carlyle, Lawrence Washington and William Ramsay. The Colville group wanted the location to be the village of Cameron, modern day Eisenhower Avenue metro station and the surrounding area east of Telegraph Road. The West group won, and Alexandria was founded along the Potomac in 1749.
Of all the dwellings in this area, Mount Eagle has perhaps the best case for bragging rights in terms of the historical stature of its builder and first occupant. Bryan Fairfax, 8th Lord Fairfax (1736-1802), lived there from 1790 to his death in 1802.
Born in Westmoreland County, Bryan was the first child of Colonel William Fairfax (1691-1757) and his second wife Deborah Clark (1707-1747). The power couple built Belvoir Manor (burned in 1783 and destroyed by the British in 1814), overlooking the Potomac and a few miles from Mount Vernon. Bryan spent some of his early years there, seeing first hand a life of privilege and high-society balls. It was at Belvoir that Bryan met George Washington. Theirs would become a life-long, close friendship.
The cousin of Bryan’s father’s (Colonel William), Thomas, Sixth Lord of Fairfax, owned over 5,000,000 acres of Northern Neck land between the Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers. Thomas appointed William his agent around 1733.
The power and influence of the Fairfax family in these parts cannot be understated. As Robert Madison points out in “Walking with Washington,” five of the original trustees of Alexandria were members of Lord Fairfax’s family by birth or marriage - Thomas Lord Fairfax, Col. William Fairfax, George William Fairfax, and William Fairfax’s two sons-in-law, Lawrence Washington (George’s half brother), and John Carlyle.
As a Fairfax, Bryan saw many doors open for him. His brother-in-law, John Carlyle, the famed merchant of Alexandria, appointed him as a deputy clerk for the county. Washington mentored him as a lieutenant in the militia regiment.
And yet, it seems Bryan had a restless soul. Susan Cochrane (Great Falls Historical Society) points out he was a “complex man who had a very different personality from George Washington. He was introspective, and spent his lifetime trying to, as we would say, "find himself."
In his book on Carlyle, James D. Munson writes that Bryan Fairfax resigned his commission in 1757. Rejected by a Miss Turberville of Westmoreland County, he fell into a funk and essentially ran away from home. Authorities arrested him in Annapolis for lacking the proper travel documents. Carlyle rescued him and brought him back to Belvoir.
In 1759, Fairfax settled down and married Elizabeth Cary, the sister of Sally Cary Fairfax, wife of George William Fairfax, his half-brother. First living at Belvoir, they had three children, William (died as an infant), Thomas (1762-1846) and Ferdinando (1766-1820). Thomas would become ninth Lord Fairfax and lived at 607 Cameron Street in Alexandria. Ferdinando lived at N. Royal for a while.
When William passed away, Bryan inherited Towlston Grange, a plantation home still standing in Great Falls. He lived there from 1768 to 1789. In 1790, Fairfax sold Towlston Grange to George Washington and moved to a 329-acre spread on that plateau overlooking Alexandria. He built a country home there and called it Mount Eagle. Fairfax was appointed as Rector of Fairfax Parish around this time, ministering at Christ Church in Alexandria and Falls Church.
As a Tory, Fairfax remained loyal to the Crown. As Nan Netherton and her co-writers (“Fairfax County, Virginia, A History”) point out, Fairfax disagreed with George Washington and George Mason regarding their revolutionary nature of the “Fairfax Resolves.” But Fairfax held “neither an American or British position, but an attempt to be as conciliatory as possible.”
Despite their ideological differences, Washington and Fairfax remained best of friends. The two would write more than 200 letters of correspondence over the course of 41 years. In one of the last, Washington closed by saying:
Mrs Washington unites in best wishes for your restored health—and in respects to your Lady and family with Your Lordships most Obedt and affectionate Hble Servant.
A week later, Washington dined at Mount Eagle with Fairfax. This was the President’s last meal away from Mount Vernon. Four days later, Fairfax dined at Mount Vernon. Three days later, on December 1799, Washington slipped away in his upstairs bed.
Bryan Fairfax died at Mount Eagle three years later. An obelisk to honor his memory was erected at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria. Some sources say it is unknown where he was buried. In their book, The Fairfax Family in Fairfax County, Kilmer and Sweig write that Fairfax was laid to rest at Ivy Hill. A representative from Ivy Hill told me they have no record of his burial.
With his father gone, Thomas Fairfax inherited and leased Mount Eagle, which included a smoke house, stable and carriage house and gardens. George Mason VI, another grandson of the Virginia patriot, lived there for a while around 1825. In 1845, Courtland Johnson, a farmer from New York, bought the property and settled down for several decades.
An article in the Washington Post (July 30, 1916) noted Mount Eagle was, with the exception of Mount Vernon, “perhaps the most historic and best known estate in northern Virginia.” The original structure was still in an excellent state of preservation. Improvements had been made to “provide more modern home conveniences, always preserving the quaint original architecture.”
In 1936, local businessmen and preservationists put forth an effort to save Mount Eagle. They formed the Lord Fairfax Country Club, which featured tennis courts and jousting tournaments. Their source of income was slot machines, which the state of Virginia banned around 1940. One of their trustees, Dr. Carson Lee Fifer, purchased Mount Eagle in 1941. For the next 20 years, the large family lived and frolicked on the property. The place was abuzz in 1949 when Thomas McKelvie, 13th Lord Fairfax, paid a visit from Scotland. He helped dedicate Mount Comfort Cemetery, which lies less than a mile to the south on S. Kings Highway.
In 1966, the Fifers sold Mount Eagle to developers, Winston Virginia Corporation. As Sprouse points out, a verbal agreement was made to ensure the preservation of the historic home. Sadly, those plans fell through. In November 1968, the Fairfax County fire department arrived. They set fire to Mount Eagle and down in flames it went.
Montebello, a four mid-rise condo complex, went up on the site in the early 80s. The street leading up to the gated property was named Mount Eagle Drive. The footprint of Mount Eagle was paved over as part of the parking for residents. The county established Mount Eagle Park to the west, but a fence surrounds the Montebello property and large trees obstruct the views.
Location: East side of Richmond Highway at King’s Crossing
Currently There: King’s Crossing, Retail and Restaurants, Wal Mart
Torn Down: 1972
Unlike City View and Mount Eagle, Spring Bank did not sit on a commanding height. There must have been, however, something special about the place, for several famous men called it home.
Spring Bank’s origins go back to the beginnings of Alexandria in middle of the 18th-century and the West family, who owned a lot of property in and around Alexandria. Col. John West owned land we now know as Belle Haven Golf Course, the Belle Haven neighborhood and some residential areas east of Route 1. In 1748, one year before the founding of Alexandria, he built a manor for his plantation called “West Grove. The modern day equivalent is the Belle Haven Golf Course.
(Note: 1760 composite map by Beth Mitchell).
Robert Patton, a raw goods merchant in Alexandria who owned a three-story dwelling at 218 N. Royal Street, bought 128 acres from Roger West in 1805. The land was fertile and held a peach and apple orchard. A creek ran from Great Hunting Creek and spawned several springs. Patton raised Merino sheep and married Ann Clifton Reeder, who traced her roots back to the Brent family. Alexandria night have been called Brentsville, for it was they who owned a large swath of land on this side of the Potomac.
Patton built his plantation manor in 1809. We’re not sure it if was coincidence or not, but it was around this time that ads began to appear in the Alexandria Gazette announcing the construction of a bridge crossing Great Hunting Creek. As Mike Bohn points out in his article on Route 1:
The first half of the 1800s saw a marked upsurge in road building, especially turnpikes. Financed by tolls, the roads featured a horizontally rotating wooden shaft or timber—a pike that turned, which kept non-paying travelers off the road. Entrepreneurs built the Hunting Creek Turnpike about 1810. It crossed Great Hunting Creek on a new bridge from south Henry Street in Alexandria to what is now the Fort Hunt Road and Route One intersection. The turnpike established a new route from Hunting Creek to Penn-Daw, then continued south on what is now King’s Highway South to its intersection with the back road to Occoquan.
The ad does not mention Spring Bank, but one mile south of the creek is where the manor sprung up. Prior to this, all horses and foot traffic had to cross the creek into Alexandria at Cameron. The modern day equivalent of this would be N. King’s Higway past the Huntington Metro, down the hill to Telegraph Road, and crossing Great Hunting Creek at that point.
After he passed away in 1826, Patton’s heirs rented Spring Bank to John Armfield, a coach driver from North Carolina who became co-owner of a slave pen in Alexandria. 1315 Duke Street was the city’s most infamous address. From this location, Armfield and his uncle, Isaac Franklin, teamed up to run a business that sold over 5,000 enslaved humans from 1828-1835. It was the largest such firm in the United States. (The Alexandria Gazette-Packett is publishing a four-part series on this topic, written by Dr. Donald M. Sweig).
Spring Bank’s next owner was George W. Mason, a grandson of George Mason, the famous patriot who lived at Gunston Hall (George W. Mason should not be confused with George Mason VI). George W. inherited Hollin Hall from his father Thomson Mason. A fire burned down the main house in 1824. In 1844, George W. bought Spring Bank and lived there the rest of his life. As Potomac Connections points out, Spring Bank at that time “consisted of a twenty-five-room mansion, a three-story brick barn, stables, and other outbuildings.”
Just as Bryan Fairfax had to worry about being on the opposite side of the local military forces, so too did George W. Mason. During the Civil War, many Virginians in Alexandria and south of Great Hunting Creek worried about their homes. In need of supplies, Union forces often confiscated homeowner’s property.
A couple of books touch on the occupation of Spring Bank by the 2nd Vermont Brigade. 5,000 soldiers were stationed there and used the mansion for their headquarters. Sprouse notes, the 63rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, were quartered at Spring Bank from October 14, 1861 to March 17, 1862. Their duties included building Fort Lyon.
Mason was in his 60s during the Civil War, a tough time to be dealing with the invaders from the north. He watched Fort Lyon go up, as well as Fort Weed, Fort O’Rourke, and Fort Farnsworth. We know this area as neighborhoods close to the Huntington Metro station. In their book, “Mr. Lincoln’s Forts,” Franklin Cooling III and Wally Owen point out that “trees on Mason’s property obstructed the fields of fire of the cannon in the forts.”
As well known as the Masons and Fairfax’s are in these parts, no family name is more famous than the Lee’s. At the Lee-Fendall House alone, more than three-dozen of the famous clan called home. Across the street, Robert E. Lee spent most of his childhood at 607 Oronoco, and his father, Henry “Light Horse Harry,” spent time at 607 Cameron Street.
Fitzhugh Lee, Robert E. Lee’s nephew, lived at Spring Bank as a renter. He was born at Clermont (site is two miles west of Huntington Metro in 1835). Henry was his paternal grandfather. His father was the older brother of Robert E. Lee. His mother was Ann Maria Mason Lee, the great granddaughter of George Mason. After the Civil War, he married Ellen Bernard Fowle of Alexandria. Winning by the slimmest of margins, Fitzhugh Lee was elected as the 40th Governor of Virginia in 1885. He rented Spring Bank during his campaign in 1885. Lee died in 1905.
In 1885, Johnson Downey of Frederick, MD bought Spring Bank. After he passed away, his widow, Rose E. Downey sold 88 acres to Charles Henry Quander (passed away in 1919). Paying tribute to the Quander family, Quander Road runs from Richmond Highway past East Potomac High School, which honored the family by naming one of its buildings Quander Hall.
The Quander family has a storied history, tracing its roots back to Ghana in 1684. Charles, born in Maryland, was the first African American to settle at Spring Bank. After his emancipation from the Hayfield Plantation in Fairfax County, he earned money and bought parcels of land south of the Spring Bank manor. The Quander farm sold milk to Alexandria and Mount Vernon. As Charlotte Brown points out, Charles willed portions of his land to his children.
Several Quander family descendants live in the Spring Bank Area. Among those that have left us recently is the late Gladys Quander Tancil. She was the granddaughter of Charles Henry Quander. Her father was James H. Quander. The commonwealth of Virginia honored her life and legacy with a Senate resolution in 2003. Among her many accomplishments were:
Mount Vernon's first African-American interpreter
25 years providing educaton and insight into the life of enslaved humans
Member of the Alfred Street Baptist Church for more than 70 years, with her service as an usher, Sunday school teacher, missionary worker, and trustee at the Children's Home of Virginia Baptists
Founding member of the Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage in Alexandria
In the next 40 years, Spring Bank, once described as one of the best and most extensive mansions in this part of Virginia,” went through a series of owners. During World War II, Robert Bowman converted the house into apartments and added a trailer park behind the house. In 1963, Lee Plaza, Inc bought the property. By then, the neighborhood had become known as Penn-Daw. K-Mart occupied the site for a period of time before developers built the King’s Crossing for retail and restaurants.
In one of the many articles she wrote in her prolific career (Historical Society of Fairfax County, Virginia, Inc, Volume 13 – 1973-1975), Edith Moore Sprouse writes about the inglorious end of this once proud historic home. A mural was removed from above the fireplace. Serving as its epitaph of sorts, she writes:
On Monday morning, February 7, 1972, a bulldozer turned the house at Spring Bank into a pile of rubble.
With City View and Mount Eagle, and almost all of the other older homes already gone, the destruction of Spring Bank finished off the stripping away of the past in these parts of Fairfax County. All that remains are Historic Huntley, some visible remains of Fort Willard, a hint of a parapet of Fort Lyon, the roadbeds for Route 1 and Telegraph Road, and a shrunken Great Hunting Creek. Even most of the old view sheds have vanished.
As the Richmond Corridor continues to grow and prosper, I think we owe it to the people who lived here to erect something more than just the next place to live, eat or shop. We need to commemorate this rich history of Southeast Fairfax County with the appropriate methods of public memory. In these efforts, let us not forget the Native Americans and the African Americans, both enslaved and free.
Note: Ed Hines, Charlotte Brown and myself are working on getting a Fairfax County History Commission sign for the Quander family and Spring Bank. If you have any documentation that would help us, please contact me. Thanks.
Today we present you with the Cunningham Historic Home Preservation Scale. It goes something like this.
Category 1. Home Destroyed, Nothing Left
Category 2. Home Destroyed, Ruins Kept/Historical Markers
Category 3. House Saved, Moved
Category 4. House Saved, Privately Owned
Category 5. House Saved, Open to the Public
Category 6. House Saved, Museum
Category 2 is a bittersweet one for those who mourn the loss of historic homes. The house is gone, but considering how difficult it can be to preserve a physical connection to the past and get approval and funding for signage, this category is much appreciated.
Examples of number two on the scale are not common. Perhaps the best-known example in and around Alexandria is Abingdon, a manor built by John Parke (“Jacky”) Custis, stepson of George Washington in 1778. The ruins and several interpretive signs are located between the two main parking lots at National Airport.
Perhaps one of the least known in this category is Mount Air. I had not heard of it until the other day when I was reading one of the Yearbooks put out by The Historical Society of Fairfax County, Virginia, Inc. (Volume IX)
What irony. Turns out the site of this historic home in the Newington portion of Fairfax County, is not that far from our house here in Groveton. We used to play golf at the Fort Belvoir course that nearly rubs shoulders with the historic site. Driving along Telegraph Road towards the Fairfax County Parkway, we’ve passed the Village of Mount Air, the neighborhood that surrounds it, many times.
Tragically, a fire burned this beautiful Greek-Revival home to the ground in 1992. In conjunction with the Mount Air neighborhood development, Fairfax County created a 15-acre historic site, located at 8600 Accotink Road. The ruins are protected, as well as a pair of out-buildings. A handful of interpretive markers tell the story, a lovely setting in a meadow surrounded by woods.
Fairfax County has excellent information on the history behind the plantation and has done a good job of protecting it. To reach the park, take Telegraph Road past the intersection at Beulah (new Wegman’s going up there). Take a left on to Accotink Road, then a right on Fisherwood Lane.
Mount Air is a good introduction to Dennis McCarty (1704-1742), whose father was born in Dublin. The McCartys were among the prominent first families of Virginia and intermarried with the Washingtons and Lees.
Dennis McCarty was born on the Northern Neck in Westmoreland County. After moving northward to what became Fairfax County, he served as Justice of the Peace and a representative in the House of Burgess. He owned more than 3,000 acres of land and was also a vestryman for Truro Parish. McCarty married Sarah Ball in 1724, the cousin of George Washington.
Historians are not sure exactly when the McCartys built their plantation manor but believe it was around 1732. This was 17 years before Alexandria was founded. Accotink Creek and the Old Colonial Road ran along the borders of the plantation.
After McCarty died in 1742, many generations of the family descendants continued to live in the house. After a fire in 1850, it was rebuilt in 1860.
As happened so many times, the Civil War proved deleterious to the homes and properties of those caught in between the conflict. Aristides Landstreet and his wife Mary suffered such a fate when they lived at Mount Air. After he enlisted with the Confederate Army, the Union occupied the manor and pilfered whatever supplies they needed.
In his book, “This Forgotten Land,” Donald Hakenson has several pages on Mount Air. He points out that Twinbrook, the overseer’s house, is located about 800 feet from the park on Accotink Road. It was moved from across the street and is a private residence with modern day additions and improvements.
Hakenson also provides an account written by Annie Landstreet, daughter of Aristides and Mary.
“The house was surrounded by soldiers who stayed in the outbuilding, and the officers had their headquarters in the downstairs room which had been our nursery."
After the war, the property values declined. The descendents were forced to sell in 1914. George Shirley Kernan acquired Mount Air from them and gave new life to the property. His wife gave the Army permission to use the grounds as quarters for the troops were constructing Camp Humphreys (now Fort Belvoir).
Mrs. Kernan lived there for nearly fifty years before bequeathing the estate to her daughter, journalist Elisabeth Enochs. The house was registered with the Fairfax County Historic Landmarks Survey in 1969. Elizabeth passed away in 1992. Shortly thereafter, the house burned, a fire of unknown origin.
As covered by Connection Newspapers, the park opened on April 28, 2006. It was the county’s first cultural resource park. Congressman Gerry Connolly praised Jack and Catherin Thorsen for making sure the remains of the house preserved. They, in turn, thanked Holly Forbes, who knew Enoch’s mother.
One of the interpretive markers discusses the archaeology conducted there. Janet Sutton, Laboratory Archaeologist for the county, wrote an article that discusses an excavation at Mount Air. Artifacts found include costly dishes imported from England, China and Germany, earthenware containers made by local potters who may have been slaves or Native Americans, fine goblets.
Another interpretive markers shows a photo of the historic mansion engulfed in flames. It breaks my heart to think about such a tragic loss. I’m lifted up, however, by those who have saved what remains, built the park and erected the generous amount of markers, and have been true to the promise of protecting this valuable historic resource.
Started reading Cornel West’s new book “Black Prophetic Fire.” I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy the Socratic method dialogue format, but Christa Buschendorf’s partnering with West makes all the difference in the world. She asks the right questions- it flat out works like a charm.
As someone interested in the life of Frederick Douglass, I devoured that chapter first. West’s analysis of Douglass is a fair balance of praise and criticism. In my look at Douglass I had gotten into hero worship mode, so I needed West’s penetrating look to off set that.
Douglass peaked, West points out, after emancipation. But he is fair with that criticism, saying – “So it is not a matter to reduce Douglass, but to contextualize him, to historize him.”
He also says, “There is nobody like him. I mean, I don’t know of any figure in American history whose language and oratory is so full of fire and electricity focusing on a particular form of injustice. I think Douglass stands along in that regard."
I next read the Ida Wells chapter, because she came up in my look at Douglass as a heroine who put her life on the line to speak out against lynching. Wells was a leader when men dominated the Civil Rights movement.
Next up was W.E.B. Dubois, a great who needs no introduction, but someone who whites tried to marginalize. This was the most difficult chapter to read, as West and Buschendorf veer off into deep philosophical territory at one point.
Ella Baker, I’m ashamed to say, I did not know. But West tells us about her great leadership as an organizer, especially with SNCC. Her thing was working away from the limelight and she did it better than anyone.
I probably won’t read about Malcom X although I should, but it’s a bit too much for me.
That leaves Martin Luther King, Jr, a man who knew a little something about the fiery passions of pouring your heart out for the causes you believe in.
The book includes a photo of each of these greats. I would have liked to seen them on the cover, but that's just a small criticism for what is otherwise a must read.
Inspired by “Street Smarts/Nuggets from the Neighborhoods,” a weekly series published in The Washington Post’s Magazine, as well as “A Remarkable and Courageous Journey,” a splendid tour de force guide put together by the City of Alexandria, we came up with this “Black Alexandria Freedom Trail.”
Beginning symbolically at the southern edge of the city at the new Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, the trail takes a seemingly odd turn away from the river before finding its way to the Parker-Gray neighborhood and ending there at the Charles Houston Rec Center. Gentrifying fast, but holding on as tight as it can to its storied past, Parker-Gray is Alexandria’s historically black neighborhood and twin sister to Old Town.
Narrowing down this trail to just six sites involved some very tough choices. Black history permeates the seaport city, a 265-year-old saga that has never been fully told. We hope this whets your appetite and that you seek out the Alexandria Black History Museum for further information. And what luck, it’s our penultimate stop.
What more appropriate place could a freedom trail in Alexandria start than this hallowed ground? On their journey towards their own freedom, thousands of self-emancipated and freed “contraband” black Americans poured into Alexandria during the Civil War. Over 1,500 of these souls were buried here in a neglected square plot of land on Old Town’s southern edge.
The memorial, christened in September with descendants in attendance, might seem a little sparse to some. There’s a lot, however, to be taken in here. Most impressive is the “Wall of Remembrance,” whose information was taken from the Gladwin Record. Looking at the accompanying bronze map, one also gets a great feel for where the black neighborhoods developed.
Veering off to the west, and reaching the outskirts of Old Town, our second stop appears to have led us away from the historic footprints of black Alexandria. That is true in some ways, but this park helps make a point we should never forget. The history of Alexandria is intertwined between black and white, and drawing boundaries is ultimately futile.
A marker in this park makes this point by saying:
From the establishment of Alexandria in 1749 to the present time, African Americans have been a vibrant part of this city’s history. The City of Alexandria would not exist in its present form were it not for the economic, social, and cultural contributions of African Americans both slave and free.
At first glance, this 8-acre park that rubs shoulders with the edge of the Carlyle neighborhood, and offers quiet strolls past Hooff’s Run, doesn’t appear to be historic. No worries. Built on a graveyard once owned by the Black Baptist Cemetery Association, Alexandria’s black past comes flooding back here. Spend some time reading the scores of names etched on a trio of bronze trees (“Truths That Rise from the Roots Remembered” sculpted by DC-based Jerome B. Meadows). Take in three exquisite bronze markers. A nice bonus is a booklet of information protected from the elements with a stylish bronze holder. On your way to the next stop, be sure and visit the Edmonson Sisters sculpture at 1600 Duke Street. Their saga took them from Alexandria to New Orleans and back, and as freedom fighters, they were on the Pearl when it slipped away from Washington in 1848.
3. Freedom House, 1315 Duke Street
Alexandria has ghost tours galore, but nothing in the city will haunt you like this museum, one of just three National Historic Landmarks in Old Town. Using an operation that included three ships and was the largest in the antebellum South, slave dealers Isaac Franklin and John Armfield sold thousands of enslaved humans from their office in this townhome. The museum shares the building with the Urban League of Northern Virginia, history makers and shakers in their own right. A bonus is an interpretive marker on the corner that tells the story of L’Ouverture Hospital and the Shiloh Baptist Church.
You won’t find any historical markers on upper Queen Street, but this memorable stretch, which includes homes dating back to the 1880s, churches, barber shops and small businesses, is, arguably, the heart and soul of the neighborhood. Uptown once pulsed with activity here, a segregated, but thriving community. At the center of it all was Sgt’s Restaurant at 1125 Queen Street, a lively nightclub. The venerable small corner spot is now home to an Ethiopian Café. Out on the corner you might meet the local fellows who will tell you about Jim Crow, the hey days of the neighborhood, and the exodus of those who called Parker-Gray home for many years.
902 Wythe Street (Parker-Gray Way)
Led by the esteemed Dr. Audrey Davis, the Alexandria Black History Museum is a treasure and a treat. The twin A-frame building holds two exhibits - “Secure the Blessings of Liberty,” the permanent exhibit located in the former Robert Robinson Library, and the changing exhibit gallery in the Parker-Gray room. It currently tells the story of the Contrabands and Freedmen. Researchers will want to check out the Watson Reading Room next door. Special events at the museum tell the on-going stories of African Americans in this part of the region and their unique roles in American history.
The museum building itself is living history. After the famous sit-in at the Queen Street library in 1939, the city built a library for African Americans here at the corner.
Built on the site of the legendary Parker-Gray School, the Charles Houston Rec Center serves as a buttress, if you will, a community gathering place that marks one of the lines between the part of the neighborhood that is re-developing at a frenzied pace and the residential parts that are protected by the historic district designation.
Walk inside this modern and attractive building and you are instantly captured with several impressive historical markers. One tells the story of Houston, a true Civil Rights pioneer who, as a lawyer, worked tirelessly to dismantle “Jim Crow” laws as they applied to education. Past the sliding doors are two walls-worth of historic photos. Turn right to find the “Alexandria African American Hall of Fame,” which honors the contributions of more than five dozens individuals.
After stepping back outside, hang a right and grab a bite to eat at the Blue and White Carry Out at the corner with Patrick Street. It’s a tiny old shack, but soulfully good with rich character, and showcases a vivid mix of old time and new residents. It’s all happening in a neighborhood that watches the tall yellow cranes with both excitement and trepidation as the soul of Parker-Gray lies in the balance.
Maybe one day someone will write a book about myths and apocrypha in Alexandria, where the truth can sometimes seem very ghostly.
Several months ago we wrote about fire marks. The oft-told story goes something like this. The fire plaques or fire marks you see on some of the historic houses in Old Town were used to indicate the homeowner had paid up their insurance with the fire department. If the fire brigade saw no marker on the home, they would not put out the fire. Not true, says Professor Mark Tebeau, and other scholars who debunked this myth.
The slippery nature of the truth also arose several weekends ago. What a wonderful job all the staff and volunteers did in putting on the 73rd Annual Historic Alexandria Homes Tour. To borrow a sentiment from The Masters, “it’s a tradition like no other.”
But something we read in the tour guidebook about flounder houses made us scratch our head and wonder if that explanation about their origins was in fact true. The guidebook said, “A landowner would build the small flounder as a temporary home until his finances allowed the grander, larger home to be built.”
I’ve been fascinated with flounder houses ever since I saw my first one in Old Town. I quickly learned that when trying to tell someone what they look like, it’s best to “show don’t tell.” The descriptions of their unique shape involve their likeness to flounder fish. Considering most Americans have never been flounder gigging, and buy their fish already cut and filleted, methinks this method does not work. Shed roofs and ells are involved, but how many of us are architects with a specialty in farms?
The problem with this particular myth is that you do have to be an architect to understand the true origins of flounders. Christopher Martin did yeoman’s work in his paper on flounders in Alexandria. In “Hope Deferred: The Origin and Development of Alexandria’s Flounder House,” published by Vernacular Architecture Forum in 1986, Martin discovered that the historic district may have been home to as many as 75 flounders. He identifies the “seventeen surviving examples” of these type houses built between 1787 and 1877.
“Some scholars,” he notes, “and many local residents claim that the flounder is unique to Alexandria.” Martin, however, found them in other cities including Fredericksburg, VA, New Castle, Delaware, Charleston, South Carolina, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St Louis and Pittsburgh.
Coming home from the tour, I re-read Martin’s article. “Eave joinery, half-gambrel roof, semi-detached pair” – honey, do we still know that contractor from Maryland?
Fortunately, Martin wrote a dissertation on the subject (“The Origin and Development of Alexandria’s Flounder Houses”), available at the Special Collections section at the Queen Street Library. I got lost again with the vocabulary and technical drawings but the author said this in his conclusion.
“Investigations of siting and rear-ell consistently indicate that no flounder builder envisioned his house as an incomplete or temporary dwelling. In creating the flounder roof, the urban builder mentally dissected the traditional gable roof and reoriented the resultant half-roof in the urban environment.”
Things can get confusing with discussions about flounder houses. The house at 213 South Fairfax Street, which was on the tour, holds a fascinating story. The back of the home was a flounder wing built in the 1790s. But as part of the modifications and additions the Procopio’s made (beautifully done by the way!), the top of the flounder wing, the shed roof, was leveled off. That’s understandable in terms of the residents needs, but it’s that top part of a flounder that sets it off as a unique form. As we walked away to the next house, I remember thinking, if that is someone’s first introduction to flounders, I’m not sure it was a good lesson.
But thanks to this house and the tour, and the scholarship of Martin, now we know a little more about flounders and the myth that surrounds them.
Fun evening last night at Gadsby’s. Helping raise money for the ice well, a crowd of about 75 gathered in the courtyard to sip Port City’s new Long Black Veil, a hoppy dark beer with some kick. The new brew and event were inspired by the story of the "Female Stranger."
Gretchen and her staff put on a great show. I had the chance to talk with Dr. Richards. He was in full character as the attending doctor. With a charming periodese, he further added to the re-creation of the story of the mysterious lady who died at Gadsby’s on October 14, 1816. Her gravesite is in St. Paul’s cemetery and the truth of what really happened seems buried too.
Nevertheless, this was a memorable event combining place, history and product on a unseasonably warm evening.
You didn’t have to know a word of French in Alexandria to be excited on Saturday, October 16, 1824.
It was a beautiful day, fit for a king. A king nor a queen arrived, but by the looks of it, it might as well have been. Alexandrians poured their hearts out for the arrival of General Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834). They knew of the special relationship between George Washington and Lafayette, who fought together in the Revolutionary War. Lafayette survived imprisonment and the guillotine to make a triumphant return to the States for a Grand Tour.
Commensurate with the occasion, The Alexandria Gazette printed five column’s worth of coverage. Thousands of people lined the streets to watch the French hero and last surviving General of the Revolutionary Way arrive in a barouche drawn by four horses.
Of the procession, the paper pointed out:
The procession entered the town through Columbus Street – went through a part of King into Fayette, thence to Prince, down Prince, and up Fairfax to Cameron, and up Cameron to Washington Street. During the passage of the procession, the windows of the houses were filled with ladies, who, as they waved their handkerchiefs, told the General he was welcome.
Meanwhile, Alexandria has the great fortune to boast of the “Lafayette House” at 301 S. St. Asaph. It is one of the area’s most enchanting homes. Especially noteworthy is its front door. An historical marker, oddly located on the side of the house, immortalizes the visit and stay.
The Federal mansion with Flemish bond brick was built just five years before Lafayette’s arrival by Thomas Lawrason. The General and his suite stayed there that Saturday evening.
In their book, Smith and Miller point out that tradition has it that Lafayette spoke to an admiring crowd not at 301 S. St. Asaph, but across the street at 601 Duke Street. Another gift that keeps on giving is the Aquia stone porch there that might have been where the General spoke.
Either way, Alexandria has fond memories of General Lafayette. For his service and friendship, we say - merci beaucoup.
“Yellow Line to Hybla Valley. Next stop Beacon Hill.”
If you are in the group that is waiting for the day when those words will be heard here in Southeast Fairfax County, there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that after years of studies that led to nowhere, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation announced on Thursday night they recommend that this hard rail extension and other improvements take place.
The bad news is the estimated construction start date is 2035.
The meeting was the third in a series for the multimodal study that will help determine the future of transportation along the Richmond Corridor.
A palpable buzz filled the meeting room at the County Center as attendees eyeballed a set of a dozen slides that spelled out the recommendations. Representatives from the coalition of agencies answered questions. Elected officials (thank you Scott Surovell and Jeff McKay) who have worked hard to reach this point were on hand.
The presentation began. Hybla Valley never looked better, with renderings of fancy bus stops, urbanesque landscapes, glass retail buildings and a brown metal post with a big letter M affixed.
The Richmond Corridor stands looking at the future the way the Wilson Boulevard did some three generations ago. Some residents and leaders had high hopes the Yellow Line would extend to Fort Belvoir. It was not to be, as VRPT recommended a two stop extension (underground) ending at Hybla Valley.
The future of Groveton was previewed with strips malls gone, and replaced by what residents hope are as fine a choice of mixed use options as found in other parts of the region.
Groveton residents and branding nerds should take note the neighborhood name Groveton has been erased from the future Metro stop, replaced with Beacon Hill. Planners should consider keeping Groveton for continuity and recognition purposes.
The study recommends a four-phased approach, using Bus Rapid Transit for the first 20 years. Phase 1 would take place from Huntington Metro to Hybla Valley. BRT would run in the median. Route 1 would be widened to achieve 6 lanes the entire distance to Woodbridge.
Perhaps surprising to some is that Penn-Daw would not see a Metro stop. Projections show more growth in Groveton and Hybla Valley.
I asked a representative why the Metro extension has such a long lead-time.
Funding for transit is more difficult to obtain now. The Feds want to see areas with more density get funding first.
For what it’s worth, there is an historical connection with this study and the planned route of Route 1 to Penn-Daw and then N. King’s Highway to the Huntington Metro. Before a bridge was built across Great Hunting Creek in 1810 at present day Route 1 into Old Town, George Washington and his planter pals used, more or less, that same route. A century and some later came the paving, and then the explosion of growth beyond the Federal City that sprawled to Woodbridge and beyond.
A new era now begins as we wait for that first Yellow Line train to Groveton and Hybla Valley.
Note: The slides for the presentation are on the web at route1multimodalaa.com/public-meeting-3-boards/.