Old Town Alexandria needs you. Let me explain - abundant workers flood out of the offices at lunchtime but our only options are burgers, chipotle, and way too expensive fancy restaurants we can’t afford for a random Monday lunch.
Let me tell you, there is NO competition for a delicious, healthy salad lunch in Old Town Alexandria. Please, spend 5 minutes looking at the lunchtime business customers’ choices on King St and consider the opportunity for your next location in the DMV.
Her wish, and it’s a good guess it’s the wish of many others in Alexandria, came true yesterday with the opening of Sweetgreen at the corner of N. Alfred and King.
Founded by three graduates of Georgetown University in 2007, the healthy fast casual restaurant has grown to more than 60 locations in the US.
We sure do miss the folks at Bittersweet, but Sweetgreen is a welcome site and wonderful replacement.
Bittersweet holds on through catering. Their office is at the end of the alley in the rear. They were going to try and have a small sales operation behind the Sweetgreen but nixed the idea.
A neighbor of the historic Woodlawn Estate and a friend and partner with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, their mission is “to improve the health of our community, support the viability of local farmers, and preserve the environment for future generations.”
We were pleased to learn from them that the horse barns at Woodlawn near Fort Belvoir will be adaptively re-used. Plans are for local craft beer and wines to be sold there, and the ongoing operation of their farm.
Many restaurants serve salads. But there’s no question that the health of our nation can be improved with a landscape sprinkled with eating establishments that offer healthy options and make it fast and easy to order.
The lady got her wish. Such a place has arrived in Old Town.
Note: Sweetgreen is app and credit card only.
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.
The final pages of another year are upon us.
Time for a look back on the new books we read this year. Didn’t have time for many, but the following ones stood out.
A young Ben Lindbergh came to Politics and Prose in 2011, a peach-fuzzed rookie on a Baseball Prospectus panel with the likes of veterans such as Jay Jaffe and Clay Davenport. The kid has matured into not only a fine sabermetric analysis, but he lived a dream many of his peers could only file under “Fantasy Baseball.”
For the 2015 season, Lindbergh and co-author Sean Miller helped run the Sonoma Stompers, an indie league team north of San Francisco. Paul Swydan of The Hardball Times makes the great point that the book has equal parts saber metrics and moves and loving baseball. In support of his book, Lindbergh spoke at Bus Boys and Poets in Washington, a full house.
The Last Innocents, The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers by Michael Leahy
A Giants fan buys a book about the Dodgers and enjoys it.
Yep, that was me this year.
As I wrote in my review of this terrific book, it allowed me to catch up on some things I missed as a child growing up in North Carolina in the sixties. Half the time we didn’t even get the boxscores until the afternoon paper.
Troubled Refuge by Sandra Manning
We need more and more good books on black history. This one shows how it can be done, shining a light on the situation in places like Alexandria where previously enslaved Americans self emancipated, but struggled on those first steps of freedom.
Apparently some don’t like the word refuge but Manning uses it in a sympathetic and meaningful way.
Manning spoke at the Alexandria Black History Museum and her return here was a homecoming of sorts, as she used to live in Old Town.
Our nation bears a shameful scar, in some ways a wound that won’t heal. Congress failed to pass an anti-lynching law in the 20th century. In 1892, more than 200 were killed this awful way. Between 1882 and 1964, almost 5,000 were lynched by angry mobs. Justice for these victims hides like bats in a cave.
An antidote to this horrible feeling is the knowledge that an impactful form of justice finally came in the 1980s. Morris Dees, an attorney who co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, brought a civil law suit against the United Klans of America. He charged them with conspiracy in the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald, a young black man in Alabama. An all-white jury awarded his mother with $7M in damages, a sum that bankrupted the UKA and sent a message that justice could prevail.
In his praise of this book, Douglas Brinkley makes the case for this story to become a major motion picture. We’d like to see it.
Alexander Robey Shepherd: The Man Who Built the Nation’s Capital by John P. Richardson
Lists of essential books on Washington vary. Mine include "Capitol Losses," "Washington at Home," "The Guide to Black Washington," "Beyond the Shadow of the Senators : The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball," and "Personal History" by Katherine Graham.
A long over due book in this capital canon was a bio of Alexander “Boss” Shepherd. Richardson takes us through the post civil war period when Washington grew from a sagging city with muddy streets to a capital that the nation could be more proud of. Shepherd overreached, however, and paid the price.
In the 1950s, the owner of the Lyceum building asked the Alexandria City Council to rezone the 200 block of S. Washington Street, so he could demolish the Greek-Revival building and put up commercial space. Filled with courtroom-like drama, the midnight hour, 4 to 3 vote in the Chamber saved the historic landmark treasure.
Alexandria is a leader in preservation, but the bad news is many other locales are not. Perhaps the biggest barrier is getting them to know the benefits and money savings of adaptive re-use.
A handbook for these purposes has emerged with Stephanie Meeks. Her chapter titled "The Greenest Buildings: Preservation, Climate Change and the Environment" is a clarion call and has the power to do so much good.
Our Book of the Year
A tough one as usual, but we select “The Past and Future City.” For far too long we as global inhabitants have abused the planet. Everything we do on Earth is important, but noting is more important than acting now to modify our behavior and take care of the place we call home.
We all have our favorite reading places, but the classic image is a summer reader pushing their toes in the sand and kicking back with a book.
These readers have always known where to plant their chair, the place where the creamy foam of high tide begins to fall back.
If we don’t start taking action, the rising tides will wash away those favorite reading places. This book shows us how to fight back.
By Jaded Roberts
Special from The Garlic Times
In the past several years, a concerted effort has taken place in the greater Washington area to bring together its three jurisdictions — the District, Maryland and Virginia.
Although no one is sure who came up the handle, the nickname “DMV” has finally caught on. And just this week the new Greater Washington Partnership announced a first ever collaboration among CEOs and entrepreneurs from Baltimore to Richmond.
On the heels of the opening of the new MGM Casino and Resort at National Harbor, however, the harmonious effort has hit a major roadblock.
Yesterday, a coalition of business associations and Chambers of Commerce from the District announced the launch of a new marketing campaign designed to counter all the recent attention focused on National Harbor.
“Our business community," Vince Proschull, a spokesperson for the group said, "is very concerned about losing customers and the District is worried about losing visitors."
In the last few weeks National Harbor has grabbed major media attention. The MLB Network broadcast live for four days at their Winter Meetings held in the Gaylord National Hotel. Last week, the new MGM Casino opened to a crowd of thousands that packed the $1.4M casino and resort. This weekend, the Miss World pageant will be broadcast across the globe from the MGM Theater at National Harbor. The still growing neighborhood also features the Tanger Outlets, and an iconic Ferris Wheel that lights up the night sky on the Potomac shore below Oxon Hill.
The rupture between the District and Maryland has been growing. When articles about National Harbor are published at the Greater Greater Washington blog, a number of invective comments typically bash the place, mostly for not having Metro.
Last week, The Washington Post writer Barry Svrluga called National Harbor a “faux community.” He wrote that baseball executives were “promised a trip to Washington, D.C., and been snookered into convening at some outgrowth called National Harbor.”
Desiring to beef up their marketing outreach, The District group announced plans for a new DMV logo, one that would show the D larger than the M and the V.
“We’re serious,” Proschull said. “This is a battle for dollars, attention and image.” We want folks to know that National Harbor is not in the District.”
Informed the new MGM Casino is less than a mile from the DC boundary line, and that National Airport is not in the District, Proschull declined to comment.
A spokesperson for National Harbor who wished to remain anonymous, commented on the District’s effort.
“Let’s think win-win in the DMV,” she said.
“And can’t we all just get along?”
What dreams we have
and how they fly
Like rosy clouds
across the sky.
- Paul Laurence Dunbar
If your passion is demolished historic buildings of Washington, DC, you probably have two things handy - James Goode’s classic “Capitol Losses” and a box of tissues.
Goode does not include any Alexandria buildings (see his “Capital Views”), but a check of Alexandria in his index reveals three men who parlayed success in Alexandria with continued fortune in the capital city.
Let’s take a brief look at these three.
Thomas Circle between Vermont and M, NW
B 1843, D 1947
There Now: Swimming Pool for a Hotel
Taken in 1922, a photograph of Thomas Circle shows a streetcar winding around the six-spoked circle crowned by an equestrian statue of General Winfield Scott, and passing by a Greek Revival, three-story brick home. Sash windows and a neoclassic cornice make it a beauty.
Charles Coltman, a brick maker and builder constructed this landmark dwelling in 1843. In 1860, Washington attorney Thomas Barbour Bryan acquired the mansion. During the Civil War he sold it to his brother-in-law Andrew Wylie Jr. (1814-1905). Born in Washington County, Pennsylvania, Wylie practiced law in Pittsburgh. In 1845, he married Mary Caroline Bryan of Alexandria. The couple moved to Alexandria around 1850. He had a private practice in the southern seaport for over ten years.
When Alexandrians cast their ballots in the Presidential election of 1860, Lincoln supporters were scarce. Wylie was one of just two in the city who voted for the tall rail splitter from Illinois. In his book, “Alexandria: An Illustrated History,” Ted Pulliam tells us, “the election officials almost refused to allow his ballot to be cast” and that he was later threatened by a mob.
President Lincoln must have appreciated the courage. He appointed Wylie as a Supreme Court Justice of the District, who sat on that bench for the next twenty years.
Wylie lived at the prestigious Thomas Circle address until he passed away in 1905. Horace (1868-1960), his only child, inherited the house and other properties in Washington.
Far from advancing his father’s prestigious legacy, Horace ran fast in the opposite direction. After marrying Katherine Hopkins, the judge’s son turned a lustful eye to a siren song he could not resist.
Her name was Elinor Hoyt Hichborn (1885-1928). She was the daughter of the solicitor general under President Roosevelt and President Taft. In 1897, the family moved from Pennsylvania and lived at 1516 K. Street and then 1701 Rhode Island Avenue. Elinor attended Holton-Arms School on Hillyer Place and attended classes at the Corcoran Museum of Art. Writers would soon describe her as stylish, elegant, luminous and radiant.
In 1906 Elinor fulfilled familial and societal expectations when she married Philip Hichborn, Jr. A graduate of Harvard and the son of an admiral, the well-bred young man ran in the same elite Washington circles as Elinor. President Roosevelt attended their wedding, considered one of the top society events of the season.
The seven-year itch came early for Elinor. In 1908, she began a flirtation with Wylie, who lived close by. Inflamed with passion and defying the social conventions of the day, the two deserted their spouses and children and sailed to Europe in 1910.
Needless to say, the Washington newspapers splashed a lot of ink on the ensuing scandal. As one writer put it, the two had betrayed their class.
Author Evelyn Helmick Hively covers this sad and salacious story in her biography, “A Private Madness: The Genius of Elinor Wylie.”
A year after being abandoned, Philip committed suicide.
After Katherine Wylie filed for divorce in 1916, Horace and Elinor were married. The couple returned to Washington in 1919 and lived at 2153 Florida Avenue (house still there). Despite their previous high standing among the elite, social norms would not allow them to return to the circles they once knew.
Elinor found a haven, of sorts, at the Wayfarers Bookshop on H. Street (appropriately located in the basement) She nurtured her need to write, and met fellow writers such as Sinclair Lewis who was writing a satirical novel to be titled, “Main Street.” Elinor also found a new beaux. She left Horace and began a relationship with William Rose Benet, a poet who helped her publish her book “Nets to Catch the Wind.”
In 1925, Elinor, this time for uplifting reasons, made headlines. An article in The Washington Post told readers she had gone to New York and found fame as a successful poet and rising star as a novelist. Her new book, “The Venetian Glass Nephew,” earned praise.
Elinor went on to publish almost a dozen books of poetry and four novels. Looking back in later years, literary critics continued to recall her writings fondly. A “frail beauty,” one wrote of her poetry.
Sadly, Elinor died in 1928 of a stroke. She had always suffered from high blood pressure.
Katherine Wylie lived on the house on Thomas Circle until her death in 1941. Her children sold the house five years later and it was demolished the following year. As Paul Williams notes, the International Inn chain built a hotel there in the early 1960s. Architect Morris Lapidus, who earned attention for his design of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, designed a large glass dome for the pool (later taken down).
As Goode points out, the hotel marked “the beginning of a transition of Thomas Circle from a residential circle to commercial uses.” The hotel is known today as the Washington Plaza.
Roger Chew Weightman (1787-1876)
Penn and 6th, NW
B 1816, R 1942
There Now: Newseum
It’s not easy for any one building to stand out on the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. With a “Window on the World” facade, the Newseum is certainly a landmark at the northeast corner of Sixth and Penn.
Starting in 1826, the National Hotel stood at this location and was long a landmark destination.
The story starts with Roger C. Weightman. Born in Alexandria in 1787, he moved to Washington in 1801 and became a printer’s apprentice. The young man learned under the tutelage of William Duane who printed and published at the northwest corner of Pennsylvania and Sixth Street.
In 1807, Weightman bought the business and secured the contract for printing government journals and stationary. According to Founders Online, one of his customers was Thomas Jefferson. They point out that “Wylie invited Jefferson to Washington’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, eliciting TJ’s last public letter.”
Business must have been brisk. In 1816 Weightman built a row of brick Federal style houses between Sixth and Seventh. They became known as the “Weightman Buildings.” At the corner spot he sold books, as well as “yarns, plaid shirtings, chambrays, sattenetts, chocolate, sugar and nails.”
In 1942, John Clagett Proctor wrote an article on Weightman. He noted members of Congress and assorted officials had gathered at the store. A few Congressmen lived at one of the adjacent boarding houses. His bookstore became a literary center of sorts.
Weightman held sway on both a business and political level. After serving on the District of Columbia council, he was elected Mayor in 1824. His duties that year included heading up the committee to welcome French General Marquis de Lafayette. In front of thousands outside the Capitol, Weightman gave the formal address.
In 1826, Weightman sold the houses, making way for the construction of National Hotel. His distinguished career continued in Washington.
Filled with 200 rooms, the hotel’s first proprietor was another Alexandrian. Even before the first cornerstone was laid for the Capitol, John Gadsby (1766-1844) had earned a sterling reputation as the owner and host at City Hotel in the seaport, a place we know today as Gadsby’s Tavern. Continuing to think big, the English immigrant first ran a tavern at 19th and I NW before purchasing Weightman’s row houses and converting them into a new hotel.
The hotel was first known as Gadsby’s Hotel. Some considered it the best and most fashionable hotel in the city. It competed against other well-knowns such as Union, Brown’s (Indian Queen), Blodgett’s, Rhodes and the Williard.
(Note: The Willard was first built in 1818, then demolished in 1900 for the construction of a new Willard. The Willard website’s history note does not reflect this, making it seem the building is from 1818.
And can you believe some wanted it torn down in the 1970s??? Goode describes it as “Washington’s best remaining example of public architecture in the Beaux Arts tradition.”
Streets of Washington blog points out the National Hotel was built incrementally, “more an accretion of smaller buildings than a single structure.”
Viewers and readers of “12 Years a Slave” may recall Solomon Northup staying at the National Hotel in 1841. His kidnappers took him there after drugging him at a nearby tavern.
In 1865, John Wilkes Booth stayed on the second floor in the hotel while plotting to assassinate President Lincoln, as well as the night before and the day of.
In 1930, The Washington Post wrote of the National Hotel,
“For more than a half century the history of the Nation was made there.” Its banquet room hosted Presidents and major balls.
After Gadsby died in 1844, the Calvert family bought the hotel. A fire in 1921 signaled its end. The guests stop coming and the doors were shuttered in 1931. After the building was demolished in 1942, a new structure went up for the DC Employment Security Building. It went down in 2000 to make way for the Newseum.
East side of 15th between U and V, NW
B 1897, R 1974
There Now: Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments
Of the three businessmen in this look back, Robert Portner (1837-1906) is likely the one you might have heard of. Catherine and Margaret Portner, two of his great-great granddaughters, are poised to open their new restaurant brewery not too far from where Portner made his mark in the city.
Portner’s story is told by Michael Gaines (“The Shortest Dynasty, 1837-1947, The Story of Robert Portner; a history of his brewing empire; and the story of his beloved Annaburg"). Garret Peck also gives him his due in “Capital Beer.” WETA has a terrific article and the Lyceum currently has an exhibit.
After emigrating from Westphalia, Germany, and running a small operation on S. St. Asaph Street in Alexandria, Portner built a massive brewery on the four blocks of Washington Street, Pendleton, St. Asaph and Wythe. At one time, Portner was the largest employer in the city.
When that operation became a smash success, Portner teamed with Albert Carry, a fellow German-American to form the National Capital Brewing Company in 1890. They acquired the Navy Yard Brewery at the blocks of 13th and 14th, and D and E in southeast DC. Several other breweries had been located there. The new plant was able to produce 100,000 barrels a day.
Peck describes Portner’s operation as a “regional brewing powerhouse.” His empire extended all across the Southeast and might have grown further. But his last breath taken in 1906 and Prohibition in 1916 ended those aspirations. His Alexandria plant was used for dairy and poultry feed and then dismantled in the 1930s. Remaining is the bottling plant building that stands across from Trader’s Joe’s and was converted into residential (also see historical marker there).
The story of Portner does not end there. He parlayed his success in Alexandria by becoming a successful real estate magnate in Washington. In 1881, the family moved to the capital city. Portner also built a 35 room mansion in Manassas he called “Annaburg.”
The Portner’s lived at 1104 Vermont Street, NW. His acquisitions include lots on 13th Street, Logan Circle and Virginia Avenue and 7th Street. All this was a warm up act for his piece de resistance. In 1896, Portner bought a block long parcel of land at 15th Street between U and V NW, and built apartment buildings there. Goode notes the “Portner Flats,” designed by architect Clement Didden, was the largest apartment house complex in the city until Connecticut Avenue held that distinction in the 1920s. Ahead of his time, Portner put in tennis courts and swimming pools.
The first part of the six-story apartment complex rose up at the corner of 15th and U Street, followed by the second at 15th and V. With business booming, he put in a finishing central part in 1902. Scratching their heads over the far flung location north of downtown DC, critics dubbed the building “Portner’s Folly.”
Portner, however, got the last laugh. Gaines writes that the residential complex became one of the most fashionable apartment buildings in the city, a precursor of sorts to the high-style units that would rise up on upper Connecticut Avenue. Residents and tenants benefitted from being one block away from the streetcar line. Portner’s builder added ornamental touches such as a pair of sculpted female figures on a corner entrance.
After World War II, the population of the Shaw neighborhood changed from primarily white to mostly black. In 1946, a group of investors bought the Portner Flats, converted it into a hotel, and changed the name to Dunbar Hotel (named after poet Paul Laurence Dunbar). Permanent residents stayed in the renovated and enlarged wing rooms, while the interior efficiencies were used for hotel guests.
The Dunbar Hotel became a crown jewel of the neighborhood. It became the leading black hotel in the city and anchored the west end of the lively U Street nightclub strip.
Shifting demographics signaled the end for the building.
Preservationists fought the good fight but The Dunbar was demolished in 1974. Four years later, the Campbell-Heights apartment house rose in its place. It was later renamed Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments.
Also in 1974, Portner Place, a four story garden style apartments rose up at 1440-1450 V Street. It is being demolished for a new residential development to be called Portner Flats.
These three men are certainly not the only ones to parlay success in Alexandria into fame in Washington. We did, however, find their stories fascinating.
And let’s not forget that tall fellow from Mount Vernon who dreamed big when he looked across the river…
Well, the night owls got the first look at the MGM Casino last night. Now the early risers get their turn.
All I can say is — wow, and so happy for Prince George’s County. You can see the excitement on their faces. And, of course, this new crown jewel is something great for the whole of the DMV.
I will also say that this place is much more than just a casino.
Parking is free for now and very convenient.
Anyway, some photos.
Yesterday I posted a link to a news article on Dusty Baker at my Facebook account.
The two gents who replied were none other than Gregg Pearlman and Richard Booroojian, who once ruled a kingdom called “EEEEEE!”
Giants fans old enough to remember when the lads played on the windswept point south of the city will recall this terrific fan web site, a pioneering venture that launched in 1996. These were the heady days of hand coding with HTML and zipping along the Internet with blazing 56K speed.
As you can see, EEEEEE! was their top pick.
Anyway, just wanted to give Gregg and Richard a shoutout to say thanks for all they did.
Of course, with the Giants' recent success, the fans are now more overjoyed than annoyed.
Hey, Gregg, maybe you could start a new blog called - “GGG!”
Started reading “Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America” by Douglas Egerton. The author of seven books, his latest is “Thunder at the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America.”
Egerton is a terrific writer who looks at the early American world through the eyes of African Americans. We tend to think Civil Rights started in the 20th Century. Egerton reminds us this struggle is as old as the republic itself and even before.
In this one, the author looks at a handful of African Americans seeking emancipation. To me, the most fascinating one is Quok Walker. Like many other enslaved blacks, he held out the hope of being freed upon the death of his owner. In this case, his owner was James Caldwell, who ran a farm in Massachusetts. His widow remarried Nathaniel Jennison, who claimed Walker as his property. In 1781, when Walker escaped and ran to the Caldwell’s home, Jennison and a small posse found him and severely whipped and beat him.
Walked turned to the courts. He hired Levi Lincoln as his counsel and sued the state, saying Caldwell had promised him his freedom. The case went to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, who ruled in Walker’s favor. Chief Justice William Cushing said, "I think the Idea of Slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct & Constitution.”
Egerton points out actions like this one forced the northern states to eliminate slavery.
African Americans shined a light in many different ways. In 1768, William Lee, also known as Will and Billy, became the property of George Washington, who paid 61 pounds for him. Economists tell us comparisons are difficult but one convertor says the figure for 60 pounds is about $10,000.
Lee was Washington’s personal servant, constant companion riding with him on surveys and fox hunts, delivering messages, running errands to Alexandria, and traveling with him to Williamsburg, Philadelphia and New York when Washington became president in 1789. As such, Lee saw more of the young nation than most others.
And in that most rare of cases, Lee is seen in a portrait by John Trumball, taken of Washington in 1780.
What Egerton does with Lee is to show that while Washington took care of him, he remained unable to read or write. Many others suffered the same cruel fate. Without their written words, we are at a tremendous loss.
Another great African American pioneer was Absalom Jones, who was born into slavery in Delaware in 1746. He taught himself to read and then watched as his mother and father were sold off to Philadelphia. After Quakers donated money for his manumission, Jones built his own home and helped found the Free African Society.
Absalom Jones was typical of those blacks in the Chesapeake who became free in that his liberation resulted not from state action or white liberality but from his own hard work and determination.
As I learn more about African American history, I am seeing that rather than being passive bystanders, black Americans did everything they could do better their situations and fight for freedom.
In this vein, Hollywood has shown us some of these stories such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Birth of a Nation.” While certainly important stories, the violence and brutality of these films made them very difficult to watch.
Let’s hope in the coming years we will see the silver screen tell some stories like those of Quok Walker, William Lee and Absalom Jones, who used judicial action, dignity and personal fortitude and organizational building to find ways towards liberty.
After all, not all of the patriots were white.
Perched on a hill just outside of Washington and across the Potomac River from Alexandria lies National Harbor. The almost eight-years-old neighborhood and destination, a point of pride for Prince George’s County, Maryland, is poised to experience a week like no other. On Sunday, Major League Baseball’s General Managers fire up the hot stoves at their annual Winter Meetings. After they exit the stage on Wednesday, the new MGM Casino pops the top for its much anticipated Grand Opening on Thursday night.
Not bad for an empty piece of land no one paid much attention to until real estate magnate Milt Peterson made it all happen. Not counting recent temporary uses (remember the recycling event?), it may seem to some that nothing much has ever happened on this sloping riverside property located just a few rolls of the dice from the Beltway.
That’s not the case. Let’s take a look.
In the 1980s, readers of The Washington Post got the words of a proposed new development on the Maryland side of the Potomac River and across from Alexandria. The ambitious project was called the “Bay of America.” Renderings for a 52-story tower drew some interest in Prince George’s County, but ultimately the idea was rejected due to aviation concerns. In 1986, the project was re-branded as “Port America.” All the work and momentum came to a halt when a poor economy deep-sixed the plans.
The failure of this project proved to be a boon for archaeologists. In the 1980s, four different professional archaeology companies investigated the 15-acre site. The site proved to be a gold mine. More than 72,000 artifacts were recovered and cataloged.
The archaeological reports give us a glimpse into the life of the Addison family, who lived on the crest of Oxon Hill. Using enslaved labor, tobacco planters like John Addison became wealthy and powerful in the Colonial era.
With the blessings of the King, Addison emigrated from Westmoreland, England in 1674 and settled at St. Mary’s City, the colonial capital in southern Maryland. He married Rebecca Dent, a widow with six children. Their son Thomas was born in 1679.
Addison wore many hats — planter, merchant, sea captain and colonel in the militia, and Justice for Charles County. His property holdings reached 6,500 acres. Addison served on the Maryland Council, a position that gave him the governor’s ear. One of his probate inventory sheets includes fourteen slaves.
In 1687, Addison purchased a parcel of land we know today as both the MGM Casino at National Harbor and Oxon Cove Park.
Before he passed away in 1705, Addison built an “earthfast” (also known as “post in ground”) house on the property. Framed on posts set in the ground, the size of the house was approximately 50 by 30 feet.
John Addison’s son, Colonel Thomas Addison, inherited the property. Colonel Thomas Addison was not only a planter; he also held duties such as commander of the Prince George’s County Militia. Addison also hosted upper crust members of society with formal parties and teas.
Thomas Addison built a manor with eight principal rooms on the same spot at the top of Oxon Hill as his father’s house. Work done by the archaeologists revealed the time was around 1710-1711. The house, probably two and a half stories, measured 72 by 40 feet.
The Addison manor later became known as Oxon Hill Manor. In the coming years, admirers would marvel at its size and splendor and compare it to John Carlyle’s mansion in Alexandria and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Addison and his wife, Eleanor Smith, owned 75 enslaved persons and were among the wealthiest families in Maryland. The labor of these slaves produced tobacco, oats and corn at the Addison farm whose site is interpreted at nearby Oxon Hill Farm.
The Addison manor and plantation was not the only one in the Oxon Hill area. Less than a half mile away, on land currently occupied by the Tanger Mall Outlets, stood Salubria. A series of markers there, as well as at the Potomac River Heritage Visitors Center, tells some of its stories.
In 1830, John H. Bayne, a prominent doctor, educator and politician, built the two-story, wood framed house. Bayne owned as many as 19 slaves who performed the dirty work of planting, picking and harvesting tobacco. After the crops depleted the soils, Bayne switched to fruits and vegetables, which he sold in the markets in the city of Washington.
Enslaved humans such as those at Oxon Hill and Salubria faced obstacles at every level. In 1723 lawmakers in Maryland outlawed meetings of African Americans. One can only try and imagine what life was like in these environments.
Four generations of the Addison family resided at their ancestral home until ownership passed into other hands. In 1810, another wealthy planter in Prince George’s County, Zachariah Berry, purchased Oxon Hill Manor. When he passed away in 1845, his son Thomas inherited the estate. When Thomas died ten years later, the deed for the hillside manor went to his son, Thomas E. Berry. With tobacco no longer the cash crop it once was, the family neglected the dwelling.
After the Civil War was over, the Oxon Hill Manor fell into a quiet period. In 1879, ads for the sale of the property appeared in the Washington Evening Star. Perhaps it was an exaggeration, but the ad touted the property as “the most desirable and valuable real estate in Prince George’s County.”
Samuel Taylor Suit responded to the ads, and purchased the house and property in 1888. The estate consisted of 1,800 acres.
After a period of a series of owners, a fire destroyed Oxon Hill Manor in 1895. The Alexandria Gazette noted the mansion was “one of the landmarks which are famous in this part of the country.”
The story of Oxon Hill Manor also involves John Hanson. Born in Mulberry Grove, Maryland in 1715, he rose to fame by serving as a patriot during the American Revolution and as a Maryland delegate to the Continental Congress. From there he went on to become the first president (1781-1782) under the provisions of the Articles of Confederation.
While visiting the Addisons, Hanson passed away at the Oxon Hill Manor on November 15, 1783.
Peter Michael is the author of, “Remembering John Hanson.” His 2011 biography not only brings to life the story of this forgotten leader, he also documents his search for Hanson’s final resting place.
Michael came across one of the archaeological surveys done in 1985 for the Addison Plantation. The report revealed the crypt and vault were located on the steep hill below the manor site. The vault was sealed at that time. Two years later, archaeologists with John Milner Associates discovered the vault “robbed and empty.” Not long after, the crypt and vault were also no longer there.
From 1983-1984 Michael tried to contact James T. Lewis, CEO of Lewis Enterprises and owner of the land. Unfortunately, he came up empty-handed. The MGM Casino sits directly on top of where Hanson once rested in peace.
After the Manor burned down in 1895, the story of the Addison Plantation faded away. Then, in 1927, Sumner Welles, a hard-nosed and influential diplomat during the FDR administration, purchased the property. Sumner and his wife Mathilde, an heiress to the Pennsylvania Railroad, chose a secluded location approximately 400 yards south of the site of the manor. They hired Count Jules Henri de Sibour, who designed a neo-Georgian-style brick manor. Visitors today find a lovely setting overlooking National Harbor.
Big money and big dreams arrive next week at National Harbor. It may seem like these events will be the first time such monumental things have happened at a landmark on this part of the DMV.