Are you ready Alexandria?
Are you ready for “Mercy Street Mania?"
Produced by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise), the new PBS drama series focuses on the lives of two volunteer nurses on opposing sides of the Civil War. 1862 Alexandria will be the setting for “Mercy Street,” the first American-based series by PBS in ten years. The show debuts on January 17, but the hottest ticket in town is the November premiere at Hoffman 22 Theaters.
History buffs like myself will, of course, need to put a governor on our eye rolling. PBS producers spent a considerable amount of time at Carlyle House doing their research, but this show is not a documentary.
Still, we can have some fun dipping into the past. One thing that caught my eye is the photograph you see at the Mercy Street website and their Facebook page. It shows the Mansion House Hotel, the historical setting for the series. Several years ago I saw this photo for the first time. I pride myself on being able to place these historical images. This one had me completely stumped. The kicker is the Bank of Alexandria building, which blends seamlessly with the part of the hotel that was torn down.
Of course, the series was filmed in Richmond, but I thought it would be informative to take a look at the history of these three buildings.
John Carlyle Builds a Georgian Manor
July 9, 1749. At the corner of Cameron and Fairfax streets, the founding fathers of Alexandria hold a sale of the dozens of half-acre lots in the infant town. John Carlyle buys what could be considered Position A, two half-acre lots across the street from where the sale took place. He will build a house like no other for miles and miles. It lies in the center of the east-west streets named for royalty, and holds a commanding spot on a 12-foot high shelf overlooking the Potomac River.
It’s only speculation, but Carlyle might have envied some of the other men who helped bring Alexandria into existence. The Fairfaxes held the title of Baron of Cameron and owned most of the land in the northern part of the Virginia colony. Belvoir, their mid-Georgian manor overlooking the Potomac a dozen miles southward, stood as the home of a dynasty. As a young teenager, George Washington couldn’t stay away from it and its occupants.
Carlyle (1720-1780) made his own way and distinguished himself as a prominent landowner, a merchant, a founding trustee and a town leader. His marriage to Sarah Fairfax put him in circles of nobility he may have never imagined.
Alexandria’s first manor stood out in many ways. The town’s founding fathers had established a code whereby homes built on the half-acre lots were required to front the street. Carlyle set his back about 30 feet.
When Carlyle passed away, the house went to his minor grandson, John Carlyle Herbert. John’s parents were Sarah Carlyle and William Herbert. The family moved into the home and stayed until 1827.
James Green Buys the Property
The way men made money and fortunes in Alexandria had changed by the time the founding fathers were all resting in peace. Tobacco, which had depleted the Tidewater soils and silted some of its ports, had been replaced by manufacturing. James Green, one of the seaport’s wealthiest citizens, rode the wave of economic success in Alexandria during the 1850s. The town’s population grew from 8,800 to 12,500. Green’s wood workers labored feverishly to keep up with demand for more housing stock.
By the end of the 1850s, the Green family had become a household name (no pun intended). For a run of 70 years, they made cabinets and furniture, mostly from their plant at the corner of Prince and Fairfax. William Green had arrived from England in 1817 and established the company. His son James ran the business beginning in 1834.
In 1848, James Green bought the Carlyle House and the Bank of Alexandria building. Interestingly enough, the marker for the bank building does not mention its time as a hotel. Built of brick in the Federal style, the handsome three-story building was completed in 1807 (the bank’s first 14 years were spent at 305 Cameron). As the marker points out, it is one of the oldest surviving commercial structures in Alexandria. George Washington was a depositor and stockholder. The bank failed in 1834. Ownership changed hands several times, and included a U.S. Post Office.
James Green turned the Bank Building into a hotel. A smash hit, it was considered one of the best places to stay in the seaport, if not the East Coast. In 1855, Green expanded the hotel and named it “Green’s Mansion House” (the image seen at the Mercy Street website). Some old guard heads must have turned. The four-story, 100-room hotel completely blocked the view of the Carlyle House.
The Civil War
As a Southern city, business owners in Alexandria used enslaved humans to make their products and money. All this changed in the spring of 1861 when President Lincoln ordered Federal troops to cross the Potomac and occupy Alexandria, a major hub with railroads. In the wee hours of May 24, another James and another popular hotel owner, James W. Jackson, proprietor of the Marshall House Hotel, was mortally wounded by a Federal gun. His death made him an instant martyr and came seconds after he shot and killed Major Elmer Ellsworth. Alexandria would never be the same.
When the war erupted in northern Virginia, Alexandria became one big hospital. Any large building, including churches, was turned into a place to treat the wounded and dying. By the end of the war, more than 30 military hospitals were located in Alexandria, with 6,500 beds.
Towards the end of 1861, the Federal Army took control of James’ hotel and turned it into a General Hospital, followed by the First Division General Hospital. Until 1864, it was the largest hospital in Alexandria. As noted by a marker on the Carlyle House front lawn, the hospital could hold up to 700 sick and wounded soldiers.
Back in Business
After the war, the hotel reopened and stayed in operation. In the 1880s, it acquired new ownership and the name of Braddock House. This was a reference to General Edward L. Braddock, who had arrived in Alexandria in 1765 and used the Carlyle House as his Headquarters.
An article in The Washington Post (August 28, 1927) noted the Braddock House had also been known as the Wagar Apartments. The building was purchased by Ernest E. Wagar of Washington. He converted the dwelling into apartment houses.
Saving and Restoring
In 1970, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority acquired the Carlyle House, which had deteriorated. The former hospital (minus the Bank Building) was demolished in 1972. After all those years as a prisoner, the Carlyle House reclaimed its glory. The House was restored, the front lawn reestablished, and the Carlyle House Historic Park and the House as a museum opened to the public in 1976. Artifacts were recovered from the hotel. In 2013, three new interpretive markers were erected. One touches on the Mansion House Hotel during Civil War.
Getting Ready for Mercy Street
The Carlyle House plans to open up an exhibit soon that will showcase Civil War era items. It will also continue to tell the story of John Carlyle and the Carlyle House. It could all be a bit confusing to a first time visitor, so hopefully this information helps. Ready or not, Mercy Street Mania is coming soon.
A Seaport Saga
Alexandria Archaelogy Website
Nurses, Spies and Soldiers: The Civil War at Carlyle House
Emma Green: The Making of a Southern Identity, Don DeBats and Margaret-Ann Williams DeBats