“In memory of the older times comes a view of King Street in antebellum days, with its little shops and familiar faces.” – “The History of Old Alexandria, Virginia,” Mary G. Powell
As you may have noticed, the City of Alexandria is in the process of erecting “wayfinding” signs throughout Old Town. One aspect of the program, not yet implemented, are mini-kiosks. These four-sided panels will be mounted on posts at “designated intersections” along King Street. One side will interpret local history.
We’ve learned these are scheduled to be installed by January. Needless to say we are excited. These metal markers are very attractive and will usher in a new era of historical marking in Alexandria. We can also say they are much needed because the great irony is that King Street currently has very few historical markers.
Note: This photo is from 2010.
I’m not certain the focus of the signs will exclusively cover history made on King Street, but nevertheless, all of this put us in anticipation mode. We cracked open some trusty sources, including “A Seaport Saga,” searched the “Historic American Buildings Survey” and used a few other sources (much is always owed to the Alexandria Times and their “Out of the Attic” series) to come up with a list of places we would like to see immortalized on these new signs. It’s by no means a complete list, but we hit what we think are some of the more deserving candidates.
(Other sources: Historic Map Works, “Pen Portraits of Alexandria (1739-1900),” “Alexandria’s Main Street Residents, The Social History of the 500 Block of King Street,” by Philip Terrie, articles at Alexandria Archaeology).
In this first series, we look at King Street from the foot up to Washington Street. Buildings (blocks 300-500) in bold were torn down in the 60s during the Urban Redevelopment movement that swept across the country. Three historical plaques were erected to mark each phase of the work, titled, “Gadsby Commercial Urban Renewal Project.” Nothing was put up to say what was torn down.
The foot of King
The foot of King Street was the center of activity for many of Alexandria’s years. There’s so much you could talk about here, including the Ramsay Wharf and the Ferry Building, which was replaced by the Boat Club. Flooding here has always been a problem. Note: There is a marker here that talks about the seaport activity. The research is top notch, but the markers (two others) tend to get overlooked.
Corner of King and S. Union
Currently there: Starbucks, The Virginia Shop
You know this leaning stone behemoth as the holder of Starbucks and the Virginia Shop. Some will recall the popular Seaport Inn restaurant that had a good run here up to the 1990s.
There is a marker outside and inside the building, but we would love to see a new one. Colonel John Fitzgerald, an immigrant from Ireland, close friend of Washington and early key player, built this warehouse in the 1790s after he banked out the bluffs below Fairfax Street. It’s gone through several uses and is a sole surviving 18th century warehouse on the waterfront.
The Corn Exchange Building
Currently there: Vacant
What a beauty, one of my favorite buildings in Old Town. Such a shame, it does seemed to be cursed with businesses coming and going.
Anyway, this building rose up in 1871. Research by T. Michael Miller (Historic Buildings and Places on the Waterfront Compiled by Douglas Applar, 2008) found that Noble Lindsey’s grocery story occupied the first floor, and the Corn Exchange the second. Noticing a photo that showed kegs lined up outside, Smith and Miller wonder – “Could there have been a small, but discreet barroom attached?”
The Corn Exchange enterprise did not last long. At some point, N. Lindsey and Company moved in. Applar notes:
By 1922 the Alexandria Gazette had the following to say about what had become the Lindsey-Nicholson Corporation:
“No firm has been more responsible for the development of Alexandria commercially, and with some 4000 square ft. of floor space in its large brick building at 100-110 King Street, it is the center of the wholesale district. It handles a complete line of staple and fancy groceries, notions, flour, feedstuff, etc. as well as the celebrated Diamond tires and tubes.”
Other occupants in the 20th Century include the Virginia Public Service Company and the Federal Government. In recent years, restaurants have given it a go, only to close down at some point.
Yours truly would love to see the building hold a combination of the Visitors Center, café, book events. The landlord probably has other ideas…
Waterline and Landfill
When the City was first laid out in 1749, the waters of the Potomac reached what is now Lee Street, between King and Queen. The street was named Water at that time.
In his book, “Maritime Alexandria,” Donald Shomette notes that in 1782, the Virginia legislature authorized the creation of Union Street. George Gilpin, the city’s engineer, led the effort of reshaping the land. Mention of Union Street began around 1786.
215-217 King, north side of King
Currently There: Shops
Tragedy struck Alexandria on November 11, 1855. Around midnight on a Friday night, volunteer fireman answered the call to a blaze on the third floor of a china store owned by J.T. Dowell. Seven perished when the west wall collapsed. Their names are James Keene, George Plain, Robert Taylor, John A. Roach, Jr, Carson Green, William L. Evans and G. David Appich. A memorial plaque hangs on the walls of City Hall, honoring their sacrifice. (“The Tragic Alexandria Fire of 1855,” by Ashton N. McKenney)
Note: Some books say the fire was on the 100 block.
The Ramsay House
Corner of King and N. Fairfax
Currently there: Visitors Center
The Ramsay House has two markers but one of them has drawn criticism for claiming the house is the oldest in the city. A new marker might clarify the situation but don’t hold your breathe. History is a prince in Alexandria, but commerce is King and Queen (note to self: call lawyer..)
300 Block, North Side
Currently There: Buildings torn down to make plaza and underground parking lot.
One area to explore are the taverns here and nearby. Perhaps the most famous was Arell’s, located at the Southeast Corner of Sharpshin and Market Square Alleys. George Washington paid this public space frequently.
Other taverns include the “Red Lion” (King and St. Asaph), McKnight’s Tavern” (northwest corner of King and Royal), “Indian Queen” (midway between Royal and Fairfax), and, “Rainbow Inn” (east side of Royal).
And of course, there was the “City Tavern,” the sole survivor we know today as Gadsby’s Tavern.
Worth Hulfish and Sons Hardware
315 King, north side of King
Currently there: Market Square plaza
Long before Lowe’s, this was the place for home improvement. Smith and Miller note this establishment was “an Alexandria institution of long-standing.” The cast iron construction was rare.
300 Block, North side, northeast corner of King and Royal
Currently there: corner of Market Square plaza, CaBi bikeshare station
Smith and Miller note this four-story building was “considered one of the handsomest establishments in the state.” Built in 1860 in the Italianate style, it first housed shoemakers, followed by a clothing and retail dry goods store. The bank began here in 1904, and remained until 1961.
300 block, North Side
Currently there: Middle entrance to Marker Square plaza.
Three doors down from the bank stood a distinct stone building with three large arches on the first floor. The sight was a symbol of power, for the building held The Alexandria Gazette, the city’s long-standing paper of record.
When the Virginia’s Writers’ Project published, “Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion,” they identified 25 top spots in the city. All but two have been adorned with an historical marker. The book noted that although it has gone changes in name, the Gazette was the oldest daily newspaper in the United States.
Home of Benjamin Barton
324 King Street
Currently There: Subway Sandwich
Catherine Hollan has great information on Benjamin Barton (“Virginia Silversmiths-Lives & Marks” and “In the Neatest Most Fashionable Manner, Three Centuries of Alexandria Silver.”)
Operating out of his shop at 324 King, Barton was the town’s premier clockmaker and silversmith. He became President of the Hydraulicon Steam Fire Company, a position he held for 42 years. When he retired in 1868, he built City View, a mansion on land now used by the Beacon Center in Fairfax County.
J.T. Creighton’s Emporium
328 King Street
Currently There: Sur le Table (CVS before it moved to 500 King)
“Alexandria U.S.A., Yesterdays Remembered,” a valentine book published by First and Citizens National Bank in the 1960s, notes that this store was “operated by the grandfather of the late pharmacist Dr. Creighton. There was little that could not be found in the store; known popularly in the last century as ‘Creighton’s Emporium.’”
Warfield Drug Store
500 block, northwest corner of King and Pitt
Currently there: CVS
Everybody loves a parade, and Alexandria sure does. One fine example took place in 1900. A large photograph of the parade has been installed near the CVS at the corner of King and Pitt. Smith and Miller note, “for many years, Alexandria gained the reputation of a town which used any excuse to have a parade.”
404-414 King, south side
Currently There: Offices, Restaurant
“Arched parapet, modified modillion, bracketed and denticulated cornice, molded sills...”
I knew I should have taken that architecture appreciation course.
Just know these four buildings made a certain statement, permanency and all that, and the cleaners must have loved the contract for the tall windows. David Appich made a name for himself with these four buildings, and other real estate moves.
North Side of 500 block (519)
Currently there: Bank
So far, I’ve bitten my tongue, not wanting to go down the curmudgeon route. But I have to say, tearing down this Classic Revival beauty was a colossal mistake.
Built around 1812, this Classic Revival beauty was built for the Mechanics Bank. After the bank went under, the Fire Insurance Company moved in. During the Civil War, the Provost Marshall set up his office here. Subsequent uses include a restaurant and a grocer.
Lannon’s Opera House
500 block, southwest corner of King and Pitt
Currently There: Restaurant
Before any of the technological wonders of the 20th century were born, opera houses were where Americans gathered to consume the world. After the Civil War, they sprung up all across the country, in towns large and small. Some were multi-purpose, used for all kinds of entertainment and civic events.
Erected “sometime between 1874 and 1884,” Lannon’s Opera House was built in the heart of Alexandria. John Lannon advertised, “meals at all hours.”
The first floor was used for dining and a game parlor, the second for the theatrical performances. The Alexandria Times notes that in 1885, Lannon’s was where Alexandria mourned the death of President Grant. A half-dozen years later, African-Americans commemorated the 28th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Madame Sissieretta Jones, a famed black soprano singer, performed there in front of an audience of both blacks and whites.
520 King, south side
Currently There: Plaza for Courthouse
D.C. has Ben’s Chili Bowl. Maryland has crab cakes. Virginia has Shuman’s, still going without a brick and mortal and long an institution on King Street. Their bakery satisfied many a sweet tooth and their specialty was jellycakes.
We'll be very disappointed if Shuman's is not included.
Thomas Dulaney’s Barber Shop
504 King Street
Currently there: Virginia Commerce Bank
Research conducted by the Alexandria Archaeology found that Thomas Dulaney was the first black merchant on King Street. He operated a barbershop.
Adam Lynn, Sr.
Currently There: Courthouse Plaza
Research by Mrs. Hugh Cox, Catherine Hollan and Philip Terrie give us insights into the life of Adam Lynn. In addition to his work as a silversmith, jeweler, clock-maker, and hardware merchant, Lynn served as an officer in the Light Infantry of the second legion of militia for the District of Columbia. He rose to the rank of Brigadier General. It appears he served during the War of 1812 and headed the Alexandria forces.
The year before his birth, the family was living in a frame house at 518-520 King Street where they operated a bakery. Adam Jr. was a vestryman for Christ Church, Justice of the Peace from 1817 to 1835 and was an officer at the Mason’s Lodge.
Adam owned five lots and prospered, but the Panic of 1819 hit him hard and he lost everything.
Washington, Alexandria, Mount Vernon Electric Railway
Along King Street
This electric line of streetcars ran from Washington to Mount Vernon. A spur went up and down King Street.
Ode to the Merchants
600 Block, both sides
Currently There: Shops and restaurants
In its hey days, King Street satisfied shoppers and home owners every need. Groceries, clothes, chinaware, furniture, drugs, cigars and tobacco, beverages, toys, jewelry, candles, paint, books, shoes, stationary, musical instruments, the merchants sold them all.
Smith and Miller observe that during the first half of the twentieth century the 600 block was “perhaps the center of retail business activity in Alexandria.”
And that is where we will stop for this first series, that natural break at Washington Street.
We hope the merchants are remembered on these new markers. And we thank those behind the scenes who are working on these new markers!