Utter the words “flounder house,” and some people will conjure up images of a seafood restaurant. In places like Alexandria and St Louis, architectural buffs know it is a type of older house with a windowless side wall. The odd shape is said to resemble the “eyeless side of the flounder fish.”
Before serendipity took me to an article about flounder houses, I was in the former camp. When I saw the title of the piece, I knew I had to explore further.
In “Hope Deferred: The Origin and Development of Alexandria’s Flounder House,” published by Vernacular Architecture Forum in 1986, Christopher 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 and discusses three “theories of origin.”
“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. Additional reading reveals similar “here only” beliefs in those cities.
Despite the apocryphal nature of the flounder house origins, the ones in Old Town add an additional flavor to the neighborhood’s charm, and stand as an agent of non-conformity in a place where residents who don’t have an oval plaque from the Historic Alexandria Foundation can receive a ribbing from their neighbors.
Martin’s article is wonderfully researched and even provides a photograph of flounder houses along the 400 to 600 blocks of Lee Street. They were torn down in the early 1900s.
Using the visual clues, I believe these flounders houses were located on what is now the block of Franklin, S. Union, Gibbon and S. Lee. The open space you see in the older photo is still there in the form of Windmill Hill Park.
I also took a photo of a flounder house within that block. It appears to be a historic nod to what was there before.
Additionally, Smith and Miller’s book, A Seaport Saga, touches on Flounder houses. They provide a photograph of a flounder house that was located at 211 S. Washington. Located near the Lyceum, it was occupied by two prominent Alexandria families. Dr. R. H. Stabler, son of the founder of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary (S. Pitt) lived there, and then members of the Snowden family, who published the Alexandria Gazette. The house was torn down in the 60s. An office building is now located there.
Another source of information on flounder houses in Alexandria is Ethelyn Cox’s “Historic Alexandria Virginia Street by Street” (1976, Historic Alexandria Foundation). I counted 20 page references although only 17 have information. Of these, only three are located on east-west streets, and the majority are in the quadrant south of King and east of Washington.
I’m reluctant to give specific street addresses, but your best bet for viewing a flounder house is on the 200-400 blocks of South Lee, South Fairfax, and South St Asaph. Some are set back from the other property lines.
Note: I obtained the “Hope Deferred” article from the Library of Congress. My thanks to them.