Alexandria, VA

Morning Notes

Beyer: Trump Must Be Removed — Rep. Don Beyer: “Donald Trump is a danger to our democracy. I continue to support his impeachment and removal from office, and am looking carefully at new articles of impeachment being drafted and offered by my colleagues… Congress must ensure Trump’s removal from office by the swiftest and surest method available: confirmation of the American people’s will as expressed in the 2020 election.” [Press Release]

Current Inova Site to Become Residential Development — “At an online community meeting Wednesday evening, attorney Cathy Puskar said the hospital will be requesting a rezoning of its current Seminary Road/Howard Street property to allow a future developer to build single family detached homes and townhomes. The current hospital is surrounded by single family homes and multifamily units.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

Local Experts Suggest Gentle New Year’s Resolutions — “For 2021, local mental health professionals advise being gentle with yourself when creating the daily schedules and resolutions that often come with the beginning of the New Year. As many are feeling drained and defeated after a tumultuous 2020, making tiny, downsized resolutions can offer reassurance and hope as we embark on a new year.” [Alexandria Gazette]

Local Historian to Host Lecture on Washington Presidency — “Alexandria resident Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky will host the virtual lecture “George Washington and France” on Thursday, Jan. 7. Chervinsky, who is a former White House Historian at the White House Historical Association, wrote about Washington and his cabinet for a recent book.” [Zebra]

The Unofficial History of the Hard Times Horse — “The horse and 1941 Chevy pick-up truck is another one of the legacies left by Fred Parker, who died in April after a battle with cancer. The horse and truck have stood proudly in front of the restaurant and have been featured in local parades.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Any Alexandrian who has gone up and down the waterfront has passed, or even walked through, the Wilkes Street Tunnel.

The tunnel’s ties to the area’s industrial history were recently documented in the online local history repository Atlas Obscura.

“At the corner of Wilkes Street and Royal Street is the entrance to a former railroad tunnel that belonged to Orange & Alexandria Railroad completed in 1856,” contributor blimpcaptain wrote. “It was used in both the Civil War and World War I as a major connector between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia.”

The train tracks were removed in 1975 and underwent a refurbishment in 2007-2008 to become a pedestrian passage.

“The most intriguing thing about the tunnel is its design and appearance,” blimpcaptain wrote. “The long entrance path is on a downward slope that slices right down the middle of Wilkes Street, which forms an upward slope that brackets the tunnel on either side, creating a neat optical effect.”

Blimpcaptain also notes that the tunnel could be haunted, but doesn’t go into further detail. An Alexandria Gazette article from 1909, quoted by Old Town Crier in a 2015 article on local hauntings, said that roughly 44 years before the article — so 1865 — there was a murder that could be the cause of the “cold spots” reported in the tunnel.

The murder was committed between five and six o’clock on a bright summer evening. The party or parties who committed the crime were never identified. The victim wore new clothes, but there is every reason to suppose he had enlisted in order to procure several hundred dollars bounty. He had been lured into the tunnel, where he was murdered and robbed. A short time before this murder some fiends who had murdered a man placed his dead body upon the track at the western end of the tunnel. The head of the corpse had been placed on the rail and a passing train crushed it.

Atlas Obscura is an online magazine with community-written posts about obscure bits of local history, specializing in hidden or mysterious locales.

Image via Wilkes Street Tunnel

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After briefly reopening some locations to tours, Alexandria has once again closed several museums and historic sites starting tomorrow (Tuesday) until further notice due to the increase in COVID-19 cases.

The city said three locations that had been opened will be closed again:

  • Alexandria Archaeology Museum
  • Alexandria’s History Museum at The Lyceum
  • Gadsby’s Tavern Museum

According to the press release:

Due to the dramatic increase in positive COVID-19 cases in Alexandria and across the region, Historic Alexandria museums will close starting Tuesday, December 22 until further notice. Luckily, history doesn’t stop just because our doors are closed! We invite the public to explore the history of Alexandria through our online resources by visiting alexandriava.gov/Historic and follow us on social media to discover new things about your hometown.

Earlier this month, the city reverted libraries back to Phase 2 of the pandemic response, with curbside pick-up/drop-off only and virtual service.

The city said there is no estimate on when the locations could reopen.

Photo via Gadsby’s Tavern Museum/Facebook

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In a Board of Architectural Review meeting earlier this week, local historic preservation consultant John Sprinkle shared some research from an upcoming book about the intersection — and sometimes fiery conflict — between the city’s efforts at historic preservation and the Civil Rights movement.

“From Historic Preservation to Neighborhood Conservation: Displacement, Urban Violence, and Architectural Survey in Alexandria, Virginia” details how, over the last fifty years, the city’s efforts at historic preservation have sometimes been at odds with efforts at preserving affordable housing in and around Black neighborhoods.

Preservation efforts as they’re known today in the city generally took shape in the 1960s, but were influenced by cultural and political movements of the 1970s. Things came to a head in 1970 when a 7-Eleven shopkeeper shot and killed 19-year-old Robin Gibson and tried to frame him for a robbery by planting a knife on his body. Riots erupted across the city.

“Alexandria marched along in a very traditional way up to 1970,” Sprinkle said. “Then something happens in 1970 with a period of experimentation in the mid-70s specifically dealing with what becomes Parker-Gray.”

Also in 1970, a city report ranked buildings throughout the city on a 1-4 scale, listed what was most-to-least in need of preserving. It was a common practice in the United Kingdom at the time, but was controversial in the United States. In Alexandria, it provided land owners with an idea of what was really important and what could be replaced with modern development, Sprinkle said.

The report also included a proposed 30-block expansion of Old Town to the north, though the city eventually settled on a smaller 13 block expansion.

“Alexandria faced a conundrum,” Sprinkle said. “[They] recognized that expansion of Old and Historic District would lead to displacement of lower income families, but they also saw expanding the district would increase property values and the residential tax base within the district.”

Sprinkle said, with the economy in shambles in the early 1970s, that expanding the Old and Historic District must have been a tempting prospect. The move was opposed by local Black community leaders at the time, who noted that increased property values would force Black families and communities from their homes. Black leaders subsequently promoted “neighborhood conservation” as an alternative to historic preservation.

“Displaced from Old Town neighborhoods, African-Americans integrated formerly all-white working class communities in Del Ray and Arlandria,” Sprinkle said. “Despite the heroic narrative in Remember the Titans… the dual path of desegregation and displacement was indeed contentious.”

Sprinkle noted that conflicts between equal justice movements and Lost Cause celebration were as active in the 1970s as they are today. Rioters targeted a building adjacent to Robert E. Lee’s home — which had been recently turned into a museum — with a molotov cocktail and flames gutted much of the interior. A carriage house undergoing rehabilitation was firebombed with most of the building’s architectural elements destroyed.

Sprinkle said the riots had a profound impact on the city’s planning efforts. The historic preservation at the time started to shift toward neighborhood conservation. The city pursued grants from National Endowment for the Humanities that focused on conservation as part of  “an experiment designed to address forecasted displacement of African Americans in the north-western quadrant.”

In 1973, the City Council rejected the expansion of the Old and Historic District to cover the area known as Parker-Gray after an outpouring of opposition from the area’s predominately Black citizens. The Parker-Gray District was established in 1984 to protect the neighborhood from incoming development. The Old and Historic District and Parker-Gray District remain distinct historic districts, though as of 2019 both are reviewed by the same Board of Architectural Review.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Morning Notes

Today Marks 69th Anniversary of Annexation of the West End — “Happy Annexation Day, West end! Today, December 3rd in 1951, the city of Alexandria received the land west of Quaker Lane, doubling the size of the city!” [John Chapman/Facebook]

Alexandria Libraries Go Back to Curbside Only — “Effective this Monday, Dec. 7, the library will offer curbside-only and virtual services until further notice. Although library buildings will be closed, library staff will offer telephone support and virtual reference during curbside hours.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

Affordable Housing Breaks Ground Today — “The project is a partnership between Wesley Housing and Fairlington Presbyterian Church to redevelop the underutilized church parking lot into an 81-unit multifamily development. A groundbreaking is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 9, though because of coronavirus the ceremony will be kept to limited attendance.” [ALXnow]

Alexandria Restarts Search for Municipal Broadband — “On Monday, the Alexandria city officials reissued an Invitation to Bid (ITB) for the construction of a Municipal Fiber Network. This is step one of a project that will connect city offices via high-speed fiber.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

Vehicle Safety Inspection Enforcement Resumes — “On Tuesday, the City of Alexandria announced enforcement of Virginia vehicle safety inspections has resumed. That enforcement had been suspended since August.” [Patch]

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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With the approach of the yuletide season, the Lee-Fendall House (614 Oronoco Street) in Alexandria has decked out the home in full 19th century regalia for candlelight tours.

“Celebrate the holiday season with evening candlelight tours of the Lee-Fendall House decked out in Victorian splendor,” the Lee-Fendall House Museum & Garden said on Facebook. “Our antique toy exhibit will also be on view.”

The home was originally built in 1785 on land purchased by Major General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.

The tours are offered every half hour starting at 5 p.m. and ending at 8 p.m. The museum warned that space is limited and reservations will be required. Face masks and social distancing will also be required for tours.

Tickets for the holiday tours are $8 for adults and $3 for children ages 6-13.

Photo via Lee-Fendall House Museum and Garden

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Morning Notes

Alexandria Featured in Profiles on Region’s Oldest Homes — “One of the interesting aspects of the Ball-Sellers House is that some of the original roof is protected under a later roof. That’s also the case with the oldest surviving house in Alexandria: 517 Prince St., or what’s known as the Murray-Dick-Fawcett House. The oldest part of the house dates to 1772. There is access to the space between the old roof and the roof that was later built above it at a less-severe pitch.” [Washington Post]

West End Contractor Wins Big Missile System Contract — “The U.S. Navy awarded Alexandria-based Systems Planning and Analysis Inc. (SPA) an $85 million contract to provide technical support for the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile system, the company announced this week.” [Virginia Business]

ACPS Food Distribution Closed for Thanksgiving Break — “ACPS food distribution sites will be closed this Wednesday, Nov. 25 and Friday, Nov. 27 for Thanksgiving Break.” [Twitter]

Alexandria Regal Hiring Staff Again — “Floor Staff team members are classified based on individual theatre needs, and/or employee availability, as either variable hour, part-time fixed, part-time regular or full-time hourly employees whose primary responsibility is ensuring our guests receive exceptional service.” [Glassdoor]

George Washington’s River Farm Listed for Sale — “River Farm, the 27-acre property once owned by George Washington that now serves as the headquarters for the American Horticultural Society, was officially listed on the open real estate market at $32.9 million on Nov. 13.” [Alexandria Times]

Staff photo by James Cullum

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A month before she died, Martha Washington was experiencing some intestinal discomfort. On April 22, 1802, she sent away for a quart bottle of the “best castor oil” that Edward Stabler had at his apothecary.

A copy of the note that Washington wrote is currently on display at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum at 105-107 S. Fairfax Street. It’s just one of many historical treasures from the country’s very first family in the apothecary’s storied history, which also includes ledgers with orders from George Washington’s doctors while he was president, orders from Martha Washington’s daughter Nelly Custis.

The simple note reads: “Mrs. Washington desires Mr. Stabler will send by the bearer, a quart bottle of his best castor oil, and the bill for it. – Mount Vernon, April 22, 1822.”

The museum, which has reopened, also has records showing that Robert E. Lee paid off his account in 1861, after he was refused the command of the Union army, resigned his commission and joined the Confederacy.

The apothecary was more than just a pharmacy. It was more like a CVS or Walgreens, and sold a variety of items, including paint, perfumes, cleaning products, pesticides and more. The company eventually owned more than 10 locations in Alexandria.

“The apothecary was the dealer in all things chemical,” Lauren Gleason, program coordinator and museum gift shop manager for the Office of Historic Alexandria, told ALXnow. “That’s why photography processing chemicals were sold originally at apothecaries. And we just continued with the practice of having our film developed at the pharmacy well through the 20th century.”

Edward Stabler founded the business in 1792, and it lasted for four generations, until his great grandson declared bankruptcy and closed shop in 1933. The original apothecary opened a few doors down, and moved into its present location in 1805.

The museum still has all of the original ingredients that were in the pharmacy when it closed in 1933, including cannabis, opium, Dragon’s Blood, Mandrake Root and Wolf’s Bane. Understandably, the list of items lines up well with the museum’s sold-out Harry Potter program.

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With photos, signs, artwork and letters, the City of Alexandria is documenting Alexandria’s response to the death of George Floyd.

The Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) and the Alexandria Black History Museum have been collecting artifacts for months and are asking for photos from the public.

“George Floyd’s life mattered,” wrote Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum. “His life story matters. His murder matters. He became part of a horrible trinity on May 25th when his killing came shortly after the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. This trinity is just the most recent example of America’s horrible legacy of racial terror deaths.”

Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25, and the event sparked outrage throughout the country, including in Alexandria. Portions of the city were shut down during the summer for protests and vigils, and the event even turned the spotlight on the Alexandria Police Department.

Due to the pandemic, donated objects will not be accepted until city museums reopen, according to OHA.

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The Freedom House Museum is planning for a spring opening, according to the Office of Historic Alexandria.

City Council will receive the news in its legislative meeting on Tuesday. The Office of Historic Alexandria will be unveiling its 2020-2025 strategic plan to Council, and the museum is being planned to open this spring.

According to a staff presentation, there will be temporary exhibits and the museum will begin a public engagement process over restoration plans and the interpretation of the site.

Alexandria completed the purchase of the former slave trading headquarters at 1315 Duke Street in March, but the pandemic forced museums across the city to close.

The building was the headquarters for five successive slave dealing firms between 1828 and 1861, including Franklin and Armfield, which was one of the largest domestic slave trading firms in the country.

“Freedom House is vital to telling Alexandria’s story,” Mayor Justin Wilson said in March. “What happened at 1315 Duke St. had a terrible and lasting impact on America. Freedom House encourages us to speak truth to power and delve deeper to confront the hard, honest truths about race, class and equity in this country.”

The only museums currently open are the Alexandria Archaeology MuseumAlexandria’s History Museum at The Lyceum and Gadsby’s Tavern Museum.

These museums are still closed:

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