The most famous individual in Alexandria’s history?
By George, that’s too easy.
How about the city’s most famous family?
With all due respect to some of the early clans such as the Fairfaxes, the answer has to be the Lees. More than 30 members of the Lee family called Alexandria home in the 19th Century. Their ranks included statesmen, generals, patriots, civic leaders, and wealthy landowners. Marriages with members of other First Families of Virginia added prominence and power.
From Williamsburg to the Northern Neck to Arlington, the tidewater townhomes and mansions of the Lees marked their dynasty. Their influence even reached across the river when Francis Preston Blair built a twin home near the White House for his daughter (Elizabeth Blair Lee) and son-in-law (Captain Samuel Phillips Lee).
Stratford, 50 miles south of Washington in the Northern Neck, is an essential stop for Lee viewing, but Alexandria is also a must see. Some of their homes in and around the seaport city were swallowed up by development, but almost a dozen have survived.
The Tidewater Lees go back to Richard Lee I (1617-1664), the founder who arrived at Jamestown in 1640 as part of the great migration from southern and western England. Lee was an archetypical gentleman, pocketed land grants and held lofty positions such as Secretary of State and Attorney General.
In the interest of time, we’ll fast forward a century to the fifth generation, and begin with Henry Lee II, Robert E.’s grandfather. Politician, patriot and officer, Henry Lee II lived in Leesylvania, near Woodbridge. His two marriages produced 8 children.
The Lee family’s influence in Alexandria began in earnest in the latter part of the 18th Century when four of his sons - Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III (1756-1818), Charles Lee (1758-1815), Richard Bland Lee (1761-1827), and Edmund J. Lee (1772-1843) – moved to seaport city. These were heady days for Alexandria, a period called, “The Golden Epoch” by William Smith and T. Michael Miller.
Here is a rundown on ten homes the Lees once inhabited in Alexandria. All of these are in the Old Town neighborhood and can be seen with one or two parks of the car. Metro, the free trolley bus and Capital Bikeshare will also benefit by their proximity.
Unfortunately, only the Lee-Fendall House is open to the public (free in March). As the rest are private, please respect the current owner’s privacy.
Note: I’m hoping for a Part Two that will look at some sites associated with the Lees, and visits to the sites of former homes.
Welcome to the “Lee Corner,” where four homes on three corners mark the old stomping grounds of the family.
Around 1783, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee bought several half-acre lots on and near N. Washington Street, a short walk from King Street. He then sold one to his cousin Philip Fendall, who in turn built a wood frame house in 1785. Fendall married Lettice Lee, a cousin from Maryland. After she passed away, he took Elizabeth Stepoe Lee as his bride.
As the Lee-Fendall House website notes, 37 members of the Lee House lived or visited here from 1785 to 1903. The house is a museum with tours, a Lee history central, if you will.
After the Union army occupied the city in 1861, the Lees fled. During the war, the Federals used the home as a hospital. Until his death in 1799, George Washington paid numerous visits here. When Washington passed away, it was here Henry penned the farewell address to the man he served under and knew so well -
First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life.
2. Robert E. Lee’s Childhood Home (Potts-Fitzhugh House), 607 Oronoco
Even if you hold contempt for Robert E. Lee, you have to at least appreciate his name as a point of reference. Henry Lee II, Henry Lee III, Light Horse, Light Foot - things gets very confusing with the Lee’s. So much so that the only way to keep track is to use their relationship to Robert E.
John Potts build the home in 1794. The Historical American Buildings Survey form notes, “the scale is delicate and while it preserves certain mid-Georgian features, it shows a marked sympathy for the Federal style.” William Henry Fitzhugh, a lifelong friend of George Washington and first President of the “Washington Society,” occupied the house next. George Washington Parke Custis courted his daughter, Mary Lee Fitzhugh, and married her in the house in 1804.
Robert E. was born at Stratford Hall on Virginia’s Northern Neck, a quick horse ride from Pope’s Creek, the birthplace of George Washington. In 1811, when he was just three years old, Henry moved the family to Alexandria. After a brief stay on Cameron Street, they moved three blocks to the north to 607 Oronoco.
Henry and his family lived here from 1811 to 1816, and 1820 to 1825. During the period in between, they lived at 407 Washington, home of Charles Lee. Beaten to within an inch of his life in 1812 and in deep debt, Henry sailed to the West Indies in 1813. His attempt to return home ended in severe pain and suffering, and then his death in 1818 in Georgia.
This part of Alexandria was on the outskirts of town during Robert E.’s childhood. One can imagine him exploring westward and playing on land that would become the Parker-Gray neighborhood. In the other direction, the Potomac River lay just six blocks away.
Robert E. applied for and was accepted at West Point while residing here. In her book, Gay Montague Moore notes Lee paid a final visit here and was seen peeking into the backyard. It is said he said, “I just wanted to see of the snowballs were in bloom.”
Up until 1975, the home was open for tours. The final day produced long lines. It has since been closed, and is a private residence.
Of those four brothers who moved to Alexandria, Edmund Jennings Lee (1772 to 1843) found less national fame. In town, however, he was a friend to many. As they note in A Seaport Saga, Edmund “was intimately engaged in the day-to-day affairs of Alexandria as a member and president of the Common Council, mayor (1815-1818), and president of the Alexandria Canal Company.”
The John Alexander Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution placed an historical marker on the front of the home in 1967. It notes Edmund served as Vestryman and Warden of Christ Church. As a prominent lawyer, he defended its glebe lands from confiscation. Edmund married Sarah Lee, the daughter of Richard Henry Lee.
After Henry Lee passed away, Edmund became Robert E.’s unofficial guardian. The marker notes Robert E. considered this his second home.
This home is private. Because it is across the street, it gets less attention than the Lee-Fendall and Lee’s Boyhood Home. The latter two also have several markers, including state highway markers.
4. Lee-Hopkins House, 609 Oronoco
To the untrained eye, 607 Oronoco appears to be one long house. In fact, 609 is separate. John Potts built this counterpart at the same time as he built 607, the childhood home of Robert E. Lee. Cornelia Lee resided here. Her father was William Lee, brother of Richard Henry and Francis Lighfoot Lee.
Benjamin Hallowell, the esteemed Quaker educator, taught here. One of his students was Robert E.
There is no historical marker for this house.
5. 407 Washington
Charles Lee House
We now leave the Lee Corner, and walk one block down Washington Street towards King Street to 407 N. Washington. Charles Lee, born two year after his brother, Henry Light Horse Harry, had a distinguished career. He served as George Washington’s Attorney General, Naval Officer, and Customs Officer in Alexandria.
Charles was the first member of the Lee family to put down roots in the city, and was highly respected among Alexandrians. Mary G. Powell notes Charles was a co-founder of, “The Periclean Society of Alexandria,” in essence, a debate club of two dozen educated men.
Robert E. Lee, his mother and siblings lived here from 1816 to 1820.
The home was built in 1790 and is a private residence. The side yard sits on the corner, a rare case east of Washington Street.
6. Lloyd House, 220 N. Washington Street
Two more blocks southward on Washington, and we arrive at one of Alexandria’s most prized homes. The Lloyd House has seen many different occupants of the handsome brick home tavern owner John West built in 1793. Charles Lee lived here in 1800. John Lloyd purchased the home in 1832. He married Anne Harriotte, the daughter of Edmund Lee.
We continue our southward march and reach 611 Cameron. In the fall of 1810, Henry Light Horse Harry Lee moved his family here, including Robert E. To summarize his childhood:
1807 - Born at Stratford
1811 – 611 Cameron
1811-1816 – 607 Oronoco
1816-1820 – 407 N. Washington
1820-1825 – 607 Oronoco
The Federal-style house was built in 1796. The Lees stayed here for one year. Robert E.’s youngest sister Catherine Mildred was born here on February 27, 1811.
This home sports a historical marker that notes this was the home of Light Horse Harry, but does not give the year. The current occupants appear to be a small business or non-profit.
8. 305 Cameron Street
Our tour heads towards the Potomac River and the original layout of the town. While he waited for 407 Washington to be built, Charles Lee stayed here (1788-1790) as a tenant of William Duvall. The Federal style home, built just one year after the town’s founding in 1849, served as Duvall’s Tavern.
On December 31, 1783, George Washington, the conquering hero of the Revolutionary War was feted here. He returned on January 2, 1788, to conduct business. Charles, President of the Potomac Company, was present.
Two markers are affixed to the front of the building. One notes that Charles was the first Customs Officer in Alexandria, and that the U.S. Commissioner of Customs designated the structure as an Historic Custom House. The other marker notes Frankie Welch opened her boutique shop in 1963, a popular destination in those days.
The Duvall House is private. It’s website notes private uses are available.
9. 207 Prince Street
We head south again, a short walk to this yellow-bricked block of Prince Street. This home, one of Alexandria’s oldest, was built by and for Col. William Fairfax and Col. George Williams Fairfax of Belvoir. William Hodgson, an English merchant, purchased it in before the turn of the century. He married Portia Lee (1777-1840) in 1799.
Cornelia Lee married John Hopkins and the couple lived here from 1810 and 1813.
10. 404 Duke
Continuing southward, we walk one more block to Duke. Richard Bland Lee, born five years after Henry Light Horse Lee, became Virginia’s congressman (1789-1795). After they lived in Sully, he and his wife moved to 404 Duke Street and lived there for about a year.
404 Duke is private and lies two doors down from 408 Duke, which was the home of Kate Waller Barrett.
Virginia Homes of the Lees, Eleanor Lee Templeman
A Seaport Saga, William Francis Smith and T. Michael Miller
The History of Old Town Alexandria, Mary G. Powell
Albion’s Seed, by David Hackett Fischer