Alexandria thrives on history, art, food and fun for all

City's early devotion to preservation has paid off

Trips: road trips, regional events

November 06, 2003|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- When a city has a none-too-subtle slogan like "The Fun Side of the Potomac," it had better deliver on its promise.

Yet what's best about Alexandria has less to do with nearby Washington (the slogan winks at them) and who's more fun. Most impressive is this city's prominent role in the fabric of American history.

After all, favorite son George Washington walked these cobblestone streets. Thomas Jefferson held his inaugural banquet at Gadsby's Tavern, now a museum.

And in 1862, Abraham Lincoln established the Alexandria National Cemetery for Civil War Veterans; African-American troops, at first excluded, would later petition for burial rights alongside white soldiers.

"There are countless stories that shed light on 18th- and 19th-century life here," says Stevie Glenn Doss, a native who gives walking tours called Alexandria's Footsteps to the Past. "Some you won't find in the history books. And they're fascinating."

Founded in 1749 by wealthy Scottish merchants, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Alexandria once claimed stature as one of the nation's most prosperous seaports, owing to its Potomac River location.

While proximity to Washington suggests merely a commuter community, the city's historic pedigree erases the cookie-cutter effect of suburban enclaves.

Here's a place linked to both the American Revolution and the Civil War, not to mention notable residents: Washington, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and George Mason, a framer of the U.S. Constitution.

The famous names and events only add to the ambiance and charm of Alexandria, which, amazingly, looks much as it did centuries ago. Streets are lined with fine historic houses, whose architecture ranges from Federal to Greek Revival.

The beauty has much to do with Alexandria's long-standing commitment to historic preservation, which took off in the 1930s. In the '40s, the city was one of only three in the nation to enact protective ordinances.

As a result, thousands of 18th- and 19th- century homes were saved, and public buildings escaped demolition. The city's historic Old Town District was transformed from a mess of empty, dilapidated buildings into a revitalized business quarter.

Yet the emphasis on history hasn't stuck Alexandria in the past. Small technology firms are its chief industry, and tourism thrives.

Today, so many upscale galleries line the quarter's main thoroughfare of King Street that it's been dubbed "Virginia's miracle mile of art and antiques" by Art & Antiques Magazine. Fashionable boutiques, national retail chains and restaurants abound.

The whole effect is quaint, yet cosmopolitan and a bit eclectic.

All the changes astound residents who remember the Alexandria of old.

"There were once so many warehouses, who would have thought people would come to see Alexandria?" says 83-year-old Ellie Randall, who works at the visitor's center, 221 King St. "So many things have changed. The improvements are great."

What to see and do

Gadsby's Tavern Museum (134 N. Royal St., 703-838-4242): Restored to its 18th-century appearance, this hub of political, business and social life in Virginia was a favorite of George Washington.

Carlyle House Historic Park (121 N. Fairfax St., 703-549-2997): Scottish merchant and city founder John Carlyle built this riverfront manor, which gained fame in the 1750s, when British Gen. Edward Braddock summoned five Colonial governors to discuss the French and Indian War.

Alexandria Black History Resource Center (638 N. Alfred St., 703-838-4356): Documents and resources that preserve the city and region's African-American history. The center was formerly a library, built in 1940 after blacks waged a sit-in at the town's segregated facility.

Torpedo Factory Art Center (105 N. Union St., 703-838-4565): This 1918 waterfront building once manufactured torpedoes but now houses nearly 200 artisans, plus studios, galleries and an art school. Artwork for sale includes sculpture, paintings, jewelry, stained glass and photography.

Alexandria Archaeology Museum (inside Torpedo Factory, 105 N. Union St., 3rd Floor, 703-838-4399): Experience community archaeology in action through artifacts, exhibits and excavation finds. Stop by the public lab to watch archaeologists and volunteers at work.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum (105-107 S. Fairfax St., 703-836-3713): A Quaker family owned this early pharmacy for 141 years until the Depression forced its closure. Herbs, potions and thousands of medical items were left intact.

Captain's Row (Prince Street): One of the oldest, most picturesque blocks in town, with historic homes built by sea captains. After their journeys, seamen often mounted pineapples on fence posts to indicate that they were home and visitors were welcome.

Christ Church (118 N. Washington St.): Founded in the 1700s, notable worshippers include George Washington (an original pew-holder) and Robert E. Lee.

Where to eat

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