Many Lives at the Grand Parker-Gray Property: Speakeasy, Home to the Trailblazing “Pruner” West and NASA Astronaut
By Kelly McCarthy
ALEXANDRIA, VA – From 1899 to 1909 Alexandria exploded in size and stature, tripling its wealth through industries as diverse as making glass and fertilizer, brewing beer and tanning leather. As a response to this newfound wealth, substantial “villas” were built and in 1905, one of those gracious new homes was erected at 1006 Cameron Street. It was completed just as the handsome new Union Station railway building was opened at the west end of King Street. As was common then, the servants did not use the grand staircase, instead moving through the building through narrow backstairs.
Lingering Lights of the Speakeasy in the 20s
At some point during the 1920s the servants’ staircase was closed up and their attic quarters were reassigned as a speakeasy. A light above the gable, which still remains, is obviously not a source of illumination – but a signal to people waiting outside that the coast was clear, and they could come on in!
1006 Cameron Street is located in the Parker-Gray district, so named for the African-American school constructed nearby in 1920. The area was the heart of the then segregated black community and one very famous black resident became a familiar and comforting presence in this neighborhood.
The Trailblazing “Pruner” West
Charles Freemont “Pruner” West was born in 1899 in Washington, Pennsylvania. He picked up his nickname because his father owned a drug store and young Charles had problems pronouncing “Peruna” – a cough syrup stocked in the store.
A natural athlete, Pruner was scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and his family told the tale that, while at high school, he could outrun their horse and once wrestled a bull to the ground.
But his biggest claim to fame came when he was a student at Washington & Jefferson College where he played football for the school. He became their starting quarterback and in 1922 led the team out to play in the Rose Bowl, the only black man on the team. His life was threatened when a lynch mob met the school bus, but his complexion was relatively fair and he fooled the mob looking for a black man into believing, “we didn’t bring him with us this time!”
The ultimate competitor, Pruner missed the first half of the November 4, 1922 game against Lafayette at the Polo Grounds with his arm taped to his side. He returned for the second half to spark a 14-point comeback to win, 14–13.
West was also chosen to compete in track-and-field events in the 1924 Olympics held in Paris, France. He was a formidable track man who threw the javelin, competed in broad jump and ran the 100-yard dash and the 440. W&J paid for his travel and expenses to France. While in Paris, he qualified to compete with the team, but France officials refused to admit him.
When Charles returned to the United States, he was offered a spot on a professional football team, the Akron Pros. He chose to attend medical school instead at Howard University. With little or no money, he worked his way through school by coaching Howard’s football team. He graduated from Howard University Medical School in 1928.
Football Star and Athlete Becomes Pioneering Alexandria Doctor
Dr. Charles F. West moved to Alexandria and set up his practice – the first of its kind – at 1006 Cameron Street. He was known for his specialized care for patients who had tuberculosis, which was common at the time. Due to the care of these patients and his research of the disease, Dr. West was the first doctor to own and operate an X-ray machine in Alexandria. When the current owners bought the property, they removed the linoleum that lined the practice office floor that Dr. West used to perform medical services for his patients in Alexandria.
The wooden bench in the hall is presumably where his patients waited for attention. In the attic bar area, Dr. West’s gun cabinet is adorned with his initials and would have held his hunting rifle and shotgun as he was keen and celebrated hunter.
Dr. Charles Fremont West served the community for 50 years until his death in 1979.
NASA Astronaut Becomes Owner
When Dr. West passed away, his daughter sold the property to three businessmen. Alexandria had suffered during the recession of the 1970s, and many buildings that once had been large homes were reassigned as commercial properties. 1006 Cameron was no exception.
One of the businessmen who acquired 1006 Cameron Street was astronaut Thomas Patten Stafford. You can see some of his NASA photographs, as well as a uniform patch from the Apollo X space mission, displayed around the building.
After graduating from the United States Naval Academy, Stafford commissioned in the United States Air Force and became a test pilot. He was selected to become an astronaut in 1962 and flew aboard Gemini 6A and Gemini 9. In 1969, Stafford was the Commander of Apollo X, the second crewed mission to orbit the moon and the first to fly a Lunar Module in lunar orbit, descending to an altitude of nine miles.
The photograph of Earth that you see displayed in 1006 Cameron Street was taken by Stafford through the viewing window of Apollo X. It is one of the earliest photographs taken by man from space of his home planet.
Today the property is being sold as a single-family home. The four-level building has four bedrooms, two and a half baths, two fireplaces, and much to offer. It is represented by Seward Realty Group of Sotheby’s in Old Town, Alexandria, 400 South Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, (703) 310-6800. For more details and to see the 3D home tour, click here.
Kelly McCarthy did the research and wrote most of this story.