Old Town Alexandria has for centuries been “the place to be”. Founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson partied here. The center of colonial social networking, Gadsby’s Tavern, continues the tradition of Port City historic hospitality with a combined museum and dining experience. The circa 1792 City Tavern and Hotel ballroom is where George Washington hosted his Birthnight Ball in 1798 and 1799 and Thomas Jefferson held his Inaugural Banquet in 1801. The entertainment balcony seemingly suspended in mid-air was reached by ladder from the hallway. A violin and bow rest against the music stand, as if the musicians were simply on a break. It takes little imagination to envision ladies in bustled taffeta and finest Belgian lace dancing the Virginia Reel across the pine floor boards.
But these are not the original floorboards and walls a weary George Washington leaned on or upon which a gallant President Jefferson whirled the elite women of Washington and Alexandria about in Inaugural jubilation. Those remain on display in the American Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
One of two concurrent special exhibits on display at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum explores the removal of the ballroom and its meticulous copy recreation reinstallation in conjunction with Alexandria City’s “Time and Place” initiative. Visitors are asked to draw their own rendition of the space and are able to weigh in upon the return of the original walls and floor from the Met by star-sticker votes. Current polling tallies indicate exhibit goers are overwhelmingly in favor of a full restoration of the original ballroom.
The other exhibit on view at Gadsby’s Tavern is “The Centennial of the Everyday”, an inventive interpretation of the mundane in a temporal and anachronistic defiance of time and space. Each room of the hotel and tavern features a different and thematic mixed and multi-media homage to place and purpose- a milieu of the Port City of yesteryear infused by 21st century devices of invention and convenience, with a nod of colonial reverence and a wink of period and familial nostalgia.
Baltimore-based artists Stewart Watson and Lauren Frances Adams brilliantly, with artistry, craftsmanship, skillful curation highlighting in-depth historical research and local reference, challenge the everyday tourist and local yokel alike to reconsider the relevance of time and place. Time intervenes upon the everyday but place does not. Objects transcend time. Place remains the constant.
Docents are available in each room of the self-guided tour to expound upon the art interfaced with the specific history of individual room exhibit sites. In one of the ballrooms visitors are permitted to send a postcard from Gadsby’s courtesy of the museum. Poems chosen by the artists enhance the visceral experience of going back and forth in time.
Much as in any exploration of the unfamiliar we are left with not so much our differences but our commonality.
Take the time to ponder the timeline of Alexandria life. And when you discover your place in time, send me a postcard.
The Centennial of the Everyday is on exhibit at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum through Labor Day. 134 North Royal Street, Alexandria. 703-746-4242. www.alexandriava.gov/GadsbysTavern