Place identity can be a very challenging thing in a large metropolitan area. When we first got here, and were asked - where do you live - I replied - “Groveton.”
When that didn’t seem to work, I used “Mount Vernon.” Better, but not really accurate.
“Route 1” or “Richmond Highway” was abandoned after realizing it sounded like we didn’t have a place to live.
“The Alexandria portion of Fairfax County” got some nods, but sometimes competed with the food I was munching on.
Although it’s not technically correct, “Alexandria” ended up being the best way to answer the question. (When asked the follow-up question is – “Do you live in Old Town?” I’m often tempted to say – “No, but we live nearby in its “affordable housing section.”)
Anyway, that’s a longwinded introduction to my morning walk earlier this week. Once again I was more familiar with the historical footprint than knowing precisely what the local folks call this part of upper Alexandria.
I started with Ruth Lincoln Kaye’s map showing the approximate location of the homes she mentions in her article, Lost Heritage. Perhaps you recall my visit to Seminary Hill. Using her map, I was inspired to look at Muckross and the sites of Cameron and Vaucluse, located west of Quaker Street and south of Seminary Lane.
For this walk, we’ll head northward a bit and look at a pair of vanished homes – Menokin and Prospect Hill, as well as a hidden treasure.
I think the best way to describe this location is the main arteries that pass by them. We’re talking north of Braddock Road, and west of Quaker Lane and King Street. The Bradlee Shopping Center and the new Safeway (ding, ding, ding), are here, and close by are Fort Ward and the Episcopal High School. Fairlington and ParkFairfax, two neighborhoods that sprung up in the 50s and 60s, lie across King Street. Some newspaper accounts and websites call this the “West End,” but it’s more northwest than west (Ok, now I’m exhausted.)
Going back to 1760, we can see on Beth Mitchell’s interpretive map that two main roads crossed paths here. Quaker Lane had not yet developed or was not on the maps.
Alexandria’s merchants needed east to west routes much more than north to south. To connect Alexandria with the Piedmont, a turnpike (“Middle Turnpike”) was built (King Street/Route 7/Leesburg Pike) and opened around 1830. Like some other main routes in this area, it was first cut out by the Native Americans.
A tollgate was located at the northeast corner of the crossroads of the turnpike and what became known as the Old Leesburg Road. We know this road today as Braddock Road. Area commuters know this busy intersection of Braddock, King and Quaker quite well. It’s the one that always seems to greet you with a red light and a long wait.
Note: As the John Milner report notes, Braddock Road is named for General Braddock, but he probably did not use this part of the road.
Let’s start with Menokin’s site. It’s behind Minnie Howard School on Braddock Road and west of the newly redeveloped Safeway and the Bradlee Shopping Center. Menokin Lane is a nod to the home once owned by Cassius Lee.
Dave Cavanaugh, a trustworthy friend to any seeker of historical truth, tells some of the story of Menokin. Built in 1854, it was the home of Cassius Lee, his wife Anne Eliza and their family. Lee, a cousin of Robert E. Lee, owned slaves, but opposed secession on the grounds that the split would mean war and the total abolition of slavery.
"Out of the Attic" also provides a primer. Risking the ruin of his reputation and unlike most other Alexandrians with a Lee name, he fled to the North during the war. Doing so left his dwelling and property vulnerable to being destroyed or damaged. When he returned, he discovered the latter had occurred. He restored Menokin, which had a large front porch.
A new historical marker at the new Safeway tells us more about Menokin. Lee’s farm produced market crops such as apples, peaches and potatoes, as well as diary products. Lee’s uncle, Francis Lightfoot Lee, a Virginia patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence, named his home Menokin. It was built in the 18th-century and is currently being rehabilitated by the Menokin Foundation on Virginia’s Northern Neck.
In 1919, an R.L. Pickett put a For Sale ad in Country Life magazine (Vol 35). He described Menokin as:
Frame house, slate roof, 16 rooms, surrounded by virgin oak grove, commanding view of Washington City, poultry plant, large barn, two wells, 95 acres, forming a triangle with Leesburg turnpike, and old Braddock Road.
In 1946, in a Letter to the Editor (Life Magazine), W. Brookings wrote the following.
Your article, “The Lees of Virginia” (Life, Aug. 19), spoke of a Lee mansion called Menokin without identifying its location… Your article referred to a Menokin in Richmond County and not to our home, another Menokin in Fairfax County which was built by Cassius Lee, first cousin of General Robert E. Lee, and is neither dilapidated nor neglected.
That W. Brookings was Major Walter Brookings. Born in San Francisco, he moved to Alexandria in 1925. Brookings spent his childhood at Menokin before moving to Gordonsville. A graduate of the Episcopal High School and then Harvard, he received his M.B.A. from American University.
The Washington Evening Star published his obituary, pointing out he served as manager of Natural Resources for the United States Chamber of Commerce for 24 years. Wearing the cluster leafs of a Major, he served in Word War I. The Major and Mrs. Brookings hosted society events and open houses at their home. Brookings was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
Despite its serviceable condition and attached history, Menokin did not survive. It went down sometime in the 1950s. The 1958 aerial shows the home and its immediate surrounding area replaced with Minnie Howard School, some residential units and homes and the Bradlee Shopping Center. Using historic aerials, it appears the site of the home was near Keller Avenue.
Prospect Hill - Bradlee Shopping Center
Some of the best historical information for homes comes from the archaeology reports written by companies hired by the city. In this case, the report for the re-developed Safeway (John Milner Associates, Inc, January 2012) tells us Captain George Slacum built Prospect Hill, a 60-acre summer estate. The family also had a home on Wilkes Street in Alexandria that was likely 208/210 Wilkes (built in 1800). Pam Cressey tells us this fine dwelling was later occupied by his granddaughter Julia and husband J.W. Burke, one of the founders of Burke and Herbert Bank.
Unfortunately, very little else is known about Prospect Hill. Like Menokin, it held great views of the surrounding countryside. The Alexandria Episcopal Seminary would have been an early landmark.
The boom in population in the Washington area in the 1940s and 1950s made this crossroads an increasingly busy place. The bedroom communities of Fairlington and Parkfairfax spurred businesses.
In 1953, the Safeway Company purchased the triangle-shaped land once occupied by Prospect Hill. The grand opening of their new store at 3526 King Street must have been a big deal for local residents in the summer of 1955. The marker also points out that the company, based primarily in the West, acquired the D.C.-based Sanitary Grocery chain in 1928. According to the marker, the first Sanitary Groceries started in Alexandria in the 1930s with stores at 1636 King Street and 1603 Seminary Road (now North Quaker Lane).
The Bradlee Shopping Center followed, opening in mid October 1957.
The marker at the Safeway points out “Bradlee” is short for the Brad in Braddock Road and lee from Leesburg Pike. Along with several benches it sits right in front of the entrance, and provided this walker with a nice respite and a place to sip his coffee. Floyd’s Barbershop sits nearby (Wonder if they have a photo of Calvin Coolidge?)
I’m very pleased with my walk so far, especially the discovery of the marker. Now it’s time to cross busy Braddock Road and walk on to the campus of the Episcopal High School. I gently scold myself for waiting so long to check things out here. But here I am, and I’m thrilled to see how lovely the campus looks.
Long private driveways with large green spaces leading up to a handsome historic home are something rare inside the Beltway. But here we have one – something out of a movie scene announcing the power of a dynasty. From Quaker Lane I hang a left into the campus, lucky to not annoy the rush hour traffic behind me.
At the end of the private drive, I parked my car and walked into the two-story building that lines up with the asphalt driveway. I was very excited because I knew I was walking into a place that would take me back over 200 years.
This is Hoxton Hall (the school’s administration building) and the story of Elizabeth Parke Custis Law and Mount Washington. We touched on it the other day. Jacky Parke Custis and Eleanor had four children – Elizabeth, Martha, Eleanor and George Washington Parke Custis. GWP build Arlington. Eleanor and her husband built Woodlawn. Martha and her husband built Tudor Place. Not too shabby.
Elizabeth, the eldest of the four, married Thomas Law. They initially settled in an attractive new home in SW Washington (Thomas Law House, 6th and N). When they separated nine years later, Elizabeth returned to the Virginia side of the river.
She built a modest dwelling to the north of the Seminary. Very little else would have been in the area. She called it “Mount Washington.” Elizabeth put the house up for sale in 1808 and later moved to Richmond.
Fast forward to 1995. Sarah Booth Conroy wrote an article in the Post titled “Hoxton House’s Secret.” As she points out, the memory of Elizabeth and the home she built had disappeared. Conroy credits T. Michael Miller for heading up the search. In a distinguished career as the City’s Historian, he turned on more lights than Dominion Virginia Power.
The school had known this building was older but was not sure of its provenance. Once they verified that Custis Law was the builder, the school funded a loving restoration of her drawing room. As the report (“Discovered – And Then Uncovered”) written by Carroll Taylor Johnson points out, the team picked away 19 layers of paint and uncovered 22-inch wainscoting made from solid pine. They also found a frieze, one that depicts a Colonial era home.
On the drive home I reflected on my walk. Dozens are the number of times we have passed through this busy intersection, headlong to some other destination. For most this crossroads is a place you just want to get past. But once you pull off and take some of it in, you find hidden treasures.
All in all a great walk through… well, I’m still working on that part...