Alexandria marks anniversary

ravel: In the shadow of Washington, a Colonial Virginia port city celebrates its 250th birthday this year.

February 21, 1999|By Randy Kraft | Randy Kraft,allentown morning call

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- On weeknights in midwinter, when the hearts of other cities are dark and lifeless, people are strolling down the brick sidewalks of King Street in Alexandria.

Many upscale stores are open on the charming street. And restaurants are bustling, many with couples dining at candle-lit tables. In addition to more than a dozen small museums and historic sites, it claims 50 antique and fine arts galleries, 300 specialty shops and 200 restaurants.

Alexandria is celebrating its 250th anniversary throughout 1999. This month, it is also celebrating George Washington's birthday.

Alexandria claims Washington, who lived in nearby Mount Vernon, as one of its own. It celebrates our first president's birthday every year, but more events are planned in 1999, the 200th anniversary of Washington's death.

If you visit, forget that Alexandria is almost in the shadow of Washington, D.C. Just pretend Washington doesn't exist and enjoy exploring Alexandria. If you try to do both cities in one trip, as many people do, you won't be able to do justice to either.

A pleasant surprise

A pleasant surprise is that the heart of Alexandria didn't get swallowed up by the 20th century sprawl of the Washington metropolitan area. A large part of the city's charm is you might not be able to tell which brick buildings are new and which are old. Even places like the Holiday Inn and McDonald's fit neatly into the architecture of center-city, called Old Town.

Several national associations are headquartered in Alexandria, where riverfront townhouses cost up to $1 million, and many of Alexandria's attractions are within walking distance of each other. But anyone who just walks around Old Town near the river won't appreciate that Alexandria is much larger than it looks, with about 119,500 residents.

Two favored tourist attractions are at opposite ends of King Street: the Torpedo Factory Art Center along the Potomac River and the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.

Despite Alexandria's Colonial and Civil War history, the Torpedo Factory is the city's most popular attraction. It's a classic case of swords being turned into plowshares. Torpedoes were made in the building from World War I through World War II. Now up to 800,000 visitors a year come to admire and purchase art created in the place.

The art center, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, helped the city grow down to the waterfront, said Taylor C. Wells, director of the Torpedo Factory Artists' Association.

He said 160 artists work in 83 studios. The center also has five galleries, including the Art League School's gallery, which has different juried shows every month.

It's a wonderful place with three mazelike levels full of traditional and abstract art studios from paintings, sculpture and photography to pottery, jewelry and even clothing. You easily can spend several hours exploring the place and watching artists at work.

Wells said the Torpedo Factory draws an average of 2,000 people a day. "We get 5,000 to 6,000 a day on weekends. This building will just swallow those people up."

Washington memorial

The hilltop memorial to Washington, who was a Freemason, also exudes a grand scale. The structure was designed to emulate the lighthouse that once stood in the harbor at Alexandria, Egypt one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Alexandria's tribute to Washington is more like the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials across the river than the obelisk Washington Monument. A 17-foot-tall statue of Washington is on the main floor of the templelike building, which can be visited for free.

In addition to admiring the sculpture of Washington, you can take a free one-hour tour through the building. It includes a Washington museum and a baffling introduction into Freemasonry, complete with rooms re-creating ancient temples. One room has a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the Ten Commandments in biblical times.

You may not notice as you ascend 300 feet to the observation level near the top of the tower, but the memorial's two elevators move laterally as well as vertically. They are 48 feet apart on the first floor, only 9 feet apart at the observation level.

Virginia's Alexandria was named not for the city in Egypt, but for John Alexander, a Scotsman who in 1669 purchased the land where the city now stands.

Founded in 1749, Alexandria was one of the major seaports of the American Colonies. Initially, its major export was tobacco. A stain on its history is that one of its major imports was slaves. During the second quarter of the 19th century, Alexandria had the dubious distinction of being headquarters of the largest slave trading business in the United States.

Many guided and self-guided walking tours are available, including tours focusing on black history and Civil War history.

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