One of the most charming streets to walk along in Old Town is South Lee. The distracting din of King Street quickly fades away as you pass by the cobblestones of Prince Street and marvel at the Greek-Revival Athenaeum. For the next half dozen blocks, the stock of pre-1850 homes is abundant and the views looking down to the Potomac River and Windmill Park are pleasant.
In terms of historical markers, there are three along the entire nine blocks, but just one for an historic home - George Johnston’s at 224.
Perhaps the strongest candidate for a new marker is the “Vowell-Snowden-Black” House at 619 S. Lee Street. Not only does it stand out in its attractiveness, but this historic home impresses with its seniority and list of famous inhabitants.
We’ll start with the HABS (Historical American Buildings Survey) “statement of significance.”
The Vowell-Snowden-Black House, certainly one of the outstanding examples of the Federal "row" type buildings in Alexandria, has fortunately been spared the fate of suffocation. By precept and example it stands flush with the street, but with its extensive grounds and breathing space preserved to this day.
A stable and coach house, hidden from view, is described as:
“a rare specimen of a characteristic utilitarian building type of the Federal period.”
Thomas Vowell, a merchant with a seagoing firm, built the house around 1800. After he fell into debt, Samuel Snowden, publisher of The Alexandria Gazette, purchased the property. Snowden’s son Edgar took over the reigns of the newspaper after his father’s death. The dwelling stayed in the family until 1912.
The neighborhood must have been buzzing in 1939 when Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black and his wife moved in. Black and his second wife demonstrated they were more than just transients when they secured a preservation easement for the property. Black lived there until his passing in 1971. His widow stayed until 1973.
Charles A. Reich, who clerked for Justice Black, provides us with a rare glimpse behind the brick walls of 619. Respecting Black’s and others privacy, Reich, now a Professor at Yale Law School, waited for 50 years after the passing of the distinguished judge to put his thoughts down on paper.
In his article titled “A Passion for Justice” (26 Touro Law Review 393 (2010), Reich relates how he lived with Black for the ’53 term. The Justice had lost his first wife and his sons and daughters had moved on to their careers.
Our day began when the Judge, in his bathrobe, knocked on our door to tell us that breakfast, which he prepared, was almost ready. At breakfast, in the kitchen, he liked to read aloud from the Washington Post, with many humorous asides. He especially enjoyed the Herblock cartoons.
Reich also marveled at Black’s volumous second floor study, which included “a full set of U.S. Reports containing all previous Supreme Court decisions and opinions.” Black traded in the cocktail circuit for nightly reading sessions at his home.
Adding to the appeal of 619 is its proximity to Windmill Park. The house has a bird’s eye view to the public space which holds a fascinating bit of long-forgotten history. The good news is the City of Alexandria plans to erect an interpretive sign at the top of the park.
Whether or not 619 ever gains a marker is up to the owners of the house. We always respect the rights of homeowners and understand any reluctance to invite eyeballs to their private property.
But we hope they will excuse those of us who love to discuss these matters. In this case, the dwelling makes a stellar case for an historical marker.