The story below is from our July/August 2015 issue. For the full story download our FREE iOS app or view our digital edition for FREE today!
This summer, take a weekend trip to one of the best preserved historic cities in the country as well as to the expansive estate of the nation’s first president.
As an architecture buff, I can’t help but love Old Town Alexandria. It is one of the best preserved 18th-century cities in America, which is one of many reasons to take a weekend jaunt to this northern Virginia destination. The city’s historic area, centered around King Street, boasts more than 4,200 historic buildings.
Architecture and Art
The preservation efforts in Old Town are largely the result of an active citizenry, believe it or not. Fran Bromberg, city archaeologist, says locals began to call for preservation efforts back in the 1960s when they saw historic artifacts turning up with work around Market Square (where you’ll find a lively farmers market on Saturday mornings).
“At the urging of citizens, the city government formed the Alexandria Archaeology Commission,” Bromberg explains.
You can explore some of the artifacts that have been uncovered around the city at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, located on the 3rd floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center on the corner of King and Union Streets.
The Torpedo Factory Art Center is also home to the city’s Art League Gallery. In fact, it was the now 1,000-member league that founded the Art Center four decades ago. One of the largest visual arts centers in the nation, the building actually served as a torpedo factory in the years following World War I. Today it is home to more than 165 visual artists, 80 of whom have working studios on site.
The league also offers classes to the general public in painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, just about anything you could imagine. You don’t have to be a professional to take a class, though you might find yourself sitting next to one who has come to tweak his or her skills. The league teaches students as young as five, so feel free to bring the kids.
Old Town is not just kid-friendly but dog-friendly, too, with 12 off-leash city parks. Bike and Roll (202-842-2453, bikethesites.com) even rents out bikes with dog trailers. (No, I’m not kidding.) Think your hound would like a cocktail? Head over to pooch-friendly happy hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. April through October at the Hotel Monaco (480 King St., 703-549-6080, monaco-alexandria.com).
Old Town has more than 80 restaurants, so it’s nearly impossible to single out just one or two. Locals swear by Hank’s Oyster Bar (1026 King St., 703-739-4265, hanksdc.com), which is known, of course, for its oysters as well as its short ribs. Virtue Feed & Grain (106 S. Union St., 571-970-3669, virtuefeedandgrain.com) is a must-eat. Think old warehouse turned into hip tavern with Irish-infused. Another good one is The Warehouse Bar & Grill (214 King St., 703-683-6868, warehouse barandgrill.com), which serves up steak and seafood. Be sure to spend some time checking out the caricatures of local gentry all over the walls here, too!
Follow the Footsteps of Washington
While you’re here, take a side trip (bikeable from downtown) out to Mount Vernon, home of our nation’s first president, where you will probably have a chance to take in a different view of George Washington’s estate on the Potomac River. After exploring the house and gardens, consider exploring the dirt.
Yes, that’s right.
Pretty much any day of the week you’ll find the estate’s archaeological team somewhere on the grounds engaging in some very tedious sleuth-like activities. Director of Archaeology Eleanor Breen tells me why: “When Washington started renting this house in 1744, it looked very different from what you see now. In the 18th century, being able to show your wealth through material possessions was a big thing…just like today,” she adds. “More money, bigger house.” Washington not only added onto the house at Mount Vernon, he also tore down many of the outbuildings immediately around the mansion.
Using surveying and mapping equipment, archaeologists have been working to locate the estate’s various original outbuildings and working on a survey of the slave cemetery.
“Our specialty is finding history in the ground,” Breen says.
While you’re in the area, consider checking out Woodlawn, the home of Washington’s nephew, Major Lawrence Lewis, and Martha Washington’s granddaughter, “Nellie” Parke Custis, whom Lewis married in 1799. As a wedding gift, Washington presented the couple with 2,000 acres of his Mount Vernon estate. And, according to Meredith Mitchell, Woodlawn’s visitor services manager, George Washington selected the house site for the nuptials, which commands a knoll with a direct view of Mount Vernon.
Also part of the Woodlawn complex, though entirely unrelated historically, is the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Pope-Leighey House, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation relocated from its original site in Falls Church to land it owns adjacent to Woodlawn. It is one of only three Wright houses in the D.C. metro area.
It’s something of an “anti-Woodlawn.” Compact, small, and unassuming, the house features Wright’s signature flat roof, organic materials like brick and cypress, and simple lines.
“Woodlawn dominates the environment,” Mitchell says, “whereas the Pope-Leighey house blends into it.”