Postcards from the Past: John Carlyle House

We found this postcard of the Carlyle House located at 121 N. Fairfax Street that shows the property BEFORE the big restoration which made the house the museum showpiece it is today.

HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THE CARLYLE HOUSE?

Now the property and grounds are owned and maintained by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, which took over the estate back in the 1970s.

But it all started in 1749 when half-acre lots for the new city of Alexandria were auctioned and a British merchant named John Carlyle purchased two lots, two of the most expensive lots because they were centrally-located between the Potomac River and Market Square.

Carlyle, also a founder of Alexandria, began construction of his Georgian stone mansion in 1751. He and his wife Sarah Fairfax Carlyle moved into their completed house on August 1, 1753. That same night, she gave birth to their first son, prompting John to write to his brother George in England that it was “a fine beginning.” 

The Georgian-style mansion provided public spaces for entertaining and private areas for family and servant use. The house quickly became a center of social and political life in early Alexandria.  Carlyle’s magnificent stone house dominated Alexandria’s 18th-century landscape and confirmed Carlyle’s status as a gentleman and entrepreneur. Today, Carlyle House is one of the nation’s finest examples of Georgian residential architecture.

According to the estate’s website, John Carlyle employed slave labor in all of his landholding and business ventures. Slaves toiled in the fields of his three plantations. Skilled craftsmen worked in the blacksmith shop. Enslaved carpenters, masons, and joiners labored in his undertaking (construction) enterprises, including building Carlyle House itself. In Carlyle’s merchant business, slaves served in numerous capacities.  

THEN IT BECAME A HOTEL

NOVA Parks shares on its main page that following John Carlyle’s death, his heirs sold off bits and pieces of his property over time. Beginning in 1847, local furniture manufacturer James Green began reassembling the original Carlyle acre of land. He managed to acquire the three-quarters of an acre that remains today. He bought Carlyle House itself, then known as Mansion House, in 1848. On the property at that time was an 1806 building that had been a bank. Green converted this building into the Mansion House Hotel, one of the finest hotels on the East Coast. He expanded the hotel in the mid-1850s, completely hiding the west façade of Carlyle House from the street.

At one time the original Carlyle House was expanded and developed into a hotel, which was later occupied by Union forces during the Civil war. This landmark was made the centerpiece of the PBS Civil War television series, Mercy Street. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Union troops occupied the city of Alexandria in May of 1861 and billeted in Green’s hotel. In November, the Union Army evicted Green and his family from both the hotel and their home, Carlyle House. The Union converted the hotel into a hospital for Union soldiers, and used the mansion as quarters for doctors and high-ranking officers. One Alexandria citizen described Green’s situation in the following way: “one of the greatest sufferers by the present occupation of Alexandria by the Hessians is Mr. James Green…Just after the Battle of Bull Run they occupied his Hotel (the largest and finest in the City) and after abusing it most shamefully left the premises in such disorder, as to require great repairs and months of cleansing, and he had scarcely reopened it when they demanded its evacuation to which he was compelled to accede, and voluntarily offered him a large rent, but was told, upon the first months rent coming due, that his rent money was ready whenever he would take the oath of allegiance to the US. Of course, the rent remains unpaid.” (1862 diary of Henry Wittington, Alexandria).

TWENTIETH CENTURY RESTORATION

Today the Carlyle House is restored to its 18th century grandeur and is available for daily tours, and special occasion rentals, including weddings. (Photo: TripAdvisor)

After Carlyle’s death in 1780, the site went through many changes. Green’s hotel became a hospital during the Civil War and an apartment building in the early twentieth century. The mansion itself became a museum during World War I. By the mid-twentieth century, the Carlyle House and grounds were in a state of great disrepair. NOVA Parks acquired the house and apartments in 1970, thus beginning a six year project of research and restoration. NOVA Parks fully restored the house and opened it to the public in 1976 as part of the nationwide Bicentennial celebration.  Operated according to the highest professional standards, Carlyle House is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, a singular distinction.  Carlyle House is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Daily tours of the house, programs for schoolchildren, special events, exhibits, and lectures explore the life and times of John Carlyle in pre-Revolutionary Alexandria. For more information, https://www.novaparks.com/parks/carlyle-house-historic-park

Carlyle House Historic Park

121 N. Fairfax Street, Alexandria, VA 22314

T 703-549-2997
E Carlyle@NVRPA.org