631 King, which occupies the northeast corner of King and N. Washington in Old Town, has a new tenant. Bumblefish Sushi gives way to Francesca’s, a boutique with five other locations in the area.
We’ve yet to hire a fashion editor, so we’ll leave that aspect to our friends at Old Town Boutique District.
We’re interested in the architecture and history of this building, a place that gets a lot of visibility, but little attention. In the summer of 2010, when I was conducting my survey of commemorative markers, I spotted the historical plaque placed on its King Street side. It only has a few words, nothing that hints at its importance to the city.
On Friday, after I noticed the sign for the new tenant, I came home and googled “Alfriend Building.” A piece written in the Alexandria Times, part of their “Out of the Attic” series, popped up. As usual, a fantastic research job by the Office of Historic Alexandria.
Intrigued, I also pulled down my copy of “A Seaport Saga, Portrait of Old Alexandria, Virginia,” and got some good info there.
The marker does this place no justice at all. First of all, it is unique. The article describes it as a “row-end” with a Georgian façade. Old Town has several structures in the Georgian style, but only a few are row-ends (not sure where the others are located.)
Secondly, 631 King is the sole survivor at this intersection, perhaps the busiest in the city for both pedestrians and vehicles. During the 1960’s urban renewal programs, and during other times, both Washington and King Street lost some crown jewels and historic buildings. Modernization is important, but this showcase junction was hit hard, losing three of four places.
In A Seaport Saga, co-author William Francis Smith laments the loss of the drug store that stood on the northwest corner (now Le Pain Quotedien). On the southeast corner, now Banana Republic, an old building housed the first home of the Episcopal Theology Seminary. Francis Scott Key was one of its founders.
On the southwest corner, now a Cosi, a lovely three-story building graced that spot. B.F. Price built it in 1879. George McBurney set up shop and sold imported and domestic wines and teas, and brewed fresh coffee. The second floor hosted “fashionable dances and festivities.” In the 1920s, Frank Howard established Howard’s Grocery.
The Alfriend Building has several names. The Historic American Building Survey titles it the John Gordon Home. The marker says erected in 1796, but Smith and Miller note it was around 1799.
The Library of Congress photo also labels it the John Gordon Home. The photo shows four tenants - Burke and Herbert Bank, a Watch Repair, Jules Hair Stylist and Greyhound Bus Depot.
Shortly after he finished building the home, Gordon sold it to Amos Alexander. Smith and Francis refer to it as the Amos Alexander Building. In the photo from their book (1925, the Loeb Collection), the building is occupied by an auto part store. A bus from the Alexandria Barcroft and Washington fleet is parked on the Washington side.
In the years to come, the deed changed hands several times before Dr. Robert South Barret, husband of the esteemed Kate Waller Barret, purchased the property in 1955. In the same year, Lila Alfriend then bought it, and made some exterior improvements. The HABS form notes it is believed the effort made it appear as originally constructed.
We wish the new tenants all the best. Perhaps they would be willing to help pay for a new marker, one that reflects the rich history of this fine building.