Placemaking shows people just how powerful their collective vision can be. It helps them to re-imagine everyday spaces, and to see anew the potential of parks, downtowns, waterfronts, plazas, neighborhoods, streets, markets, campuses and public buildings. - “What is Placemaking?” Project of Public Spaces
During the recent broadcast of WETA’s, “Discovering Alexandria, the 20th Century,” the story turned to the Urban Renewal that took place along King Street in the 1960s.
Al Cox, the city’s trustworthy Architect and Historic Preservation Manager, made some good cogent comments. He noted that although some folks did not approve of the demolition of the 300-500 blocks, their redevelopment brought about a needed revitalization of the downtown area.
I agree that some change was necessary, but every time I walk down King Street and see those bland, blockish replacement buildings (“Modern Horror,” to borrow a phrase from Calder Loth) on the north side of 400 and 500, and feel their soul-sapping vibe, it makes me wonder if their time has come.
But what to do with these buildings?
Just this past week the City announced a new “Tomorrow’s Alexandria” initiative. As noted by The Alexandria Times, city officials will focus on “how the city will look in 20 or 30 years.” We are indeed at the stage now where cities, towns and communities are looking ahead, and trying to figure out what is best for the community.
One thought I had for at least one of these buildings on the north side of 400 and 500 King Street is reconstruction. The thought came to me this summer when Roberta and I drove down to the Middle Peninsula to see Menokin and listen to Loth lecture about reconstruction.
As I wrote, the Menokin Group are transforming this historic house (home of Francis Lightfoot Lee) on Virginia’s Northern Neck into what they are calling the most engaging preservation project in the United States. Structural glass will rise up to replace crumbling brick walls. When finished, the refurbished structure will host events and became a center of learning.
Loth also talked about the other type of reconstructions, those of a lost historic treasure. This has been done on a grand scale throughout the world. Old Town tapped into this method at both the Ramsey House (Visitors Center) and George Washington’s townhouse on Cameron Street.
Recreating the whole block is probably not a good idea, so maybe just one or two.
One building that seems to stand out as the greatest loss on the north side of the 500 block was the Mechanics Bank building. Smith and Miller called it a handsome Classic Revival building. Built around 1812, its occupants included the bank, the office of provost for the Union Army during the Civil War, and as the property of George Appich after the war. His tenants included a restaurant, Frank Howard’s, and Jones and Pritchard grocer.
The possibilities for a re-do of these two buildings are limited only to the extent of our imagination. Whatever we do it seems to me that there is a great need here for public gathering places. This part of King Street comes alive on Saturdays with the Farmers Market, only to fall silent during the week.
Through the years, the term “the heart of Old Town” is one that has been used by many different entities. The location has varied according to their (almost always commercial) needs.
But where is the true heart of Old Town?
In his paper (“Alexandria’s Main Street Residents”), Philip Terrie writes that from the 1780s to the 1960s, the 500 block of King Street, lined with shopkeepers and shops, was the heart of the city. In looking at Smith and Miller’s A Seaport Saga, an easy takeaway is that 400 and 500 King, the middle blocks if you will, were the heart. A new historic marker on King Street reminds us “the 500 block has long been associated with retail trade.”
Today a few shops sell their wares on the north side of 500 (yes, keep the CVS!), but the streetscape is the polar opposite of what came before. Quite frankly, these two buildings look like a brutal remnant of a dystopian period.
“This Place Matters” is a popular slogan and sign used by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Most of the time this applies to a building, district, object, structure or site.
But we could also say the space itself is what matters to the community. Therefore, I think it is time for the city to take a look at improving at least one of these blocks. Just as it was 50 years ago, it’s time to revitalize the heart of Alexandria’s downtown.