Backyard History

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum Calls Acquisition ‘The Holy Grail’ of Building’s Interpretation

The papers are so detailed they show complete inventories from lampshades to enslaved people.
(Photo courtesy of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum.)

Historic and Important Documents, The Irwin Family Papers, Purchased by Gadsby’s Tavern Museum Society

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum Society recently bought an important archival collection that significantly adds to the documentation of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. The Irwin Family Papers detail the business, shipping, and real estate enterprise from 1776-1925 of the Irwin family of Alexandria. The Irwin family owned the 1792 City Hotel (Gadsby’s) from 1815 to 1929.

Irish born Thomas Irwin came to Alexandria via Philadelphia in 1790, marrying into the prominent Janney family. During the Irwin family’s time in Alexandria, they owned notable buildings, ran a successful domestic and international shipping business, and otherwise immersed themselves in the public and private life in the city.

Thomas Irwin had business dealings with Mr. Gadsby, specifically related to Gadsby’s 1802 lease with John Wise. (Photo courtesy of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum.)

Two documents – John Gadsby’s 1802 lease addendum and the corresponding inventory – are of vital importance for the modern interpretation of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. They give context to John Gadsby’s finances, how the buildings were furnished, and the types of items needed to run a first-class hotel at the dawn of the 19th century in the new Federal City. The City Hotel documents span the years from 1802, when Thomas Irwin signs the addendum as security, to 1929, when Irwin’s great grandchildren sell the property to the American Legion Post 24.

The collection also includes a number of real estate documents. Thomas Irwin, like many of his fellow Alexandrians, invested heavily in real estate. In addition to the City Hotel, Irwin also owned the Fitzgerald Warehouse and Wharf at the base of King Street from 1802 through the late 19th century. Additional properties on King, St. Asaph, Duke, and Cameron Streets provided income that Irwin and his descendants collected into the 20th century.

At Gadsby’s Tavern Museum with Director Liz Williams looking on as Nancy Keegan Smith signs the Deed of Gift from The Gadsby’s Tavern Historical Society to The City of Alexandria.(Photo by Lucelle O’Flaherty.)

Thomas Irwin’s shipping business with his partner, John Dunlap, made voyages to Jamaica, Barbados, and Cayenne in French Guiana, as well as Philadelphia and Delaware. Ship manifests, bills of lading, expense accounts, marine insurance policies, and payment schedules for crews all help to tell the story of Alexandria’s place in international commerce during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

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