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.