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Carlyle House Throws 300th Birthday Party for Town Founder

Historically accurate costumed interpreters welcomed guests Saturday, February 8 to the open house 300th birthday party for Alexandria, Virginia town founder John Carlyle at the home he built at 121 N. Fairfax Street. (Photo: Lucelle O’Flaherty)

ALEXANDRIA, VA – On Saturday, February 8, 2020, museum staff and period re-enactors welcomed visitors to a busy open house 300th birthday celebration for town founder John Carlyle at his 121 N. Fairfax Street home.

Festivities included 18th-century dancing, live music, and musket-firing demonstrations.  And of course, cake. “No party is complete without birthday cake! We are serving Martha Washington’s Great Cake along with some apple cider,” said Andrea Tracey, Director of Carlyle House

Served at the 300th birthday party for John Carlyle, Great Cake is one of the few surviving recipes directly associated with Martha Washington. It was so well-liked that she had her granddaughter Martha Parke Custis copy it down for use by other members of the family. (Photo: Carlyle House)

Who Was John Carlyle?

Born of modest means, John Carlyle was early proof that “the American dream” was possible. This portrait hangs in Carlyle House, the home that he built in 1752 for himself and his wife of five years. It was the largest house in town, and the only one at that time made of stone rather than wood. (Photo: Lucelle O’Flaherty)

Born February 8, 1720 to William and Rachel Carlyle in either Carlisle, England or Dumfries, Scotland, John Carlyle was only 21 when he hunkered down on a British ship for the harrowing six to eight-week voyage to America in 1741.

He quickly established himself as a merchant at Belhaven, a settlement that had grown up around a tobacco warehouse on the bluff overlooking the Potomac River.

Reminding visitors of the soldiers of the day, these re-enactors fired muskets and showed off their brilliant best at John Carlyle’s 300th birthday party. (Photo: Lucelle O’Flaherty)

He did well in business and, in 1747, married Sarah Fairfax, cousin of Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. Recognizing any street names? Carlyle built their home on Fairfax Street between 1751 and 1753 in Alexandria, but he also owned thousands of acres of land throughout Virginia, including three plantations.

Costumed historical interpreters inside Carlyle House partied like they would have in the mid-1700s for John Carlyle’s 300th birthday. (Photo: Lucelle O’Flaherty)

Carlyle was part of critical moments in America’s early history. A founder of Alexandria, he opened their home during the French and Indian War in 1754 to General Edward Braddock (yes like the Road) to use as his headquarters, and he was good friends with General George Washington and was part of the early days of revolution.

Carlyle’s plantation, located where Fairlington stands today, covered more than 600 acres. The mansion house, constructed before 1770, was three stories high and built of brick. Tortherwald, named for an ancient Scottish castle, included a detached kitchen, barn, stables, a fruit tree orchard, an overseer’s house, and shops for a weaver and a blacksmith. According to one historical account, local residents later mispronounced the estate’s name, calling it Totherworld or “the other world,” so Carlyle descendants changed the plantation’s name to Morven. (Photo: Alexandria Special Collections)

When Sarah died in 1761, he married Sybil West and built a plantation house called Morven in the area now known as Fairlington. It stood until 1942 when it was torn down to make way for the townhomes still standing which were originally built as military housing for officers during World War 2.

John Carlyle died in 1780 and is buried in the Old Presbyterian Meeting House cemetery at 321 S. Fairfax Street in Alexandria


The John Carlyle House. (Photo: Visit Alexandria)

Carlyle House offers daily tours, youth programs, special events, exhibits and lectures offer visitors a chance to experience eighteenth century life through the eyes of one man and his family as he made the journey from English citizen to American patriot.


Mary Wadland

Mary Wadland is the Publisher and Editor in Chief of The Zebra Press, founded by her in 2010. Originally from Delray Beach, Florida, Mary is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Hollins College in Roanoke, VA and has lived and worked in the Alexandria publishing community since 1987.

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