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Old Town North: The Seeds of Yesteryear Transform as Community Blossoms

If you ask any resident or business owner in Old Town North what makes this nook of Alexandria so special, you’ll likely hear a lot about ‘’history” and “community.” Let’s find out why.

The popular St. Elmo’s of Del Ray has opened a second location in Old Town North : with a chic layout, and delicious menu. (Laura Hatcher Photography)

By Margaret Townsend

Alexandria, VA – If you ask any resident or business owner in Old Town North what makes this nook of Alexandria so special, you’ll likely hear a lot about ‘’history” and “community.” Let’s find out why.

Well before 1947 and the establishment of the Potomac River Power Plant, much of Old Town North was agrarian. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, it was also slightly industrial, providing employment for those who lived in Old Town North. Over the years the neighborhood continued to evolve to meet the needs of residents and small business owners, all while preserving and parading its history.

A Mid-Century Mecca

Since the mid-nineties, the Montgomery Center has been a hub for small, local businesses in Old Town North. (Courtesy of Bruce Machanic)
Today it is home to beloved River’s Edge Yoga, Wheel Nuts Bike Shop, Extra Perks Coffee Shop and Café, and more! (Laura Hatcher Photography)

A cornerstone of Old Town North is the Montgomery Center, affectionately known as the “coolest block in town,” by its tenants and patrons. The building encompasses the entire square block between North Fairfax, North Royal, Madison, and Montgomery streets.

Originally developed as warehouse space built in phases starting in the early 1950s, additional second-floor office buildings were added in the early 1970s. During the Cold War, The Montgomery Center was home to Teledyne Geotech, a company tasked with monitoring seismic activity of Soviet nuclear testing worldwide. In fact, that data was stored on tapes right here in Old Town North. You might be more familiar with the division of Teledyne Geotech that makes “water-piks,” the popular water-based flossing system.

Who knew this used to be a car wash? (Laura Hatcher Photography)

The Montgomery Center had other unique tenants, as well. Have you ever noticed the funky, wide-open, pushed-back entrance to the Art League School Madison Annex, on North Fairfax street, the one that is about the size of a car? Fun fact: It used to be a car wash.

“Buried beneath this stone lies lock #3 of the Alexandria Canal,” reads the Alexandria Canal plaque. The Alexandria Canal connected the Harbor of Alexandria with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Georgetown D.C.; it used to run right through Old Town North. (Laura Hatcher Photography)

Since 1976, the Montgomery Center has been owned by MRE Properties, based right here in Old Town North. MRE President Bruce Machanic explained that the neighborhood used to be primarily commercial office space, but there were a few residential properties including the Port Royale Condominiums, The Alexandria House and Canal Way. There was very little retail or fine dining, but there was one club called Fleetwood’s, owned by none other than Mick Fleetwood of the famous rock band Fleetwood Mac, at the foot of Montgomery Street, one block up from the Potomac River. Fleetwood’s closed in 1996, but Old Town North has always found a way to rock on.

A Budding Flower Begins to Bloom

In 1992, the City of Alexandria updated the Old Town North Small Area Plan (OTNSAP), which prioritized economic development and placemaking, and formed the Old Town North Community Partnership (OTNCP) to aid in the implementation of the new plan.

The partnership was instrumental in working with the City of Alexandria on improvements to Old Town North that would celebrate the neighborhood and all those in it. Those improvements included Montgomery Park, the hub of the neighborhood, as well as a year-round Thursday Farmer’s Market, a Summer Concert Series, and the annual Taste of Old Town North.

The Old Town North Farmer’s Market is year-round, every Thursday. (Courtesy of Margaret Townsend)

The Taste of Old Town North has been modified for 2021. (Courtesy of Margaret Townsend)

Old Town North continued to blossom, adding new residential properties, restaurants, arts organizations, and retail, as well as a mixture of small, locally owned businesses including Wheel Nuts Bike Shop, operating here for over 20 years, Seichou Karate, and Metro Stage, Alexandria’s only professional theater company.

In 2017 the OTNSAP was updated again, designating Old Town North as Alexandria’s Arts and Cultural District. Despite the current pandemic, the arts and culture of this newly designated district found a way to persevere. The Taste of Old Town North was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19, but it has been reimagined for Spring 2021 as a two-month stroll through the neighborhood, with a percentage of the ticket sales benefiting the local nonprofit ALIVE!

A Year to Persevere

The outdoor dining views are irresistible at Café 44. (Laura Hatcher Photography)

Café 44 opened at the Canal Center Plaza in 2017. With beautiful views from its dining balcony four floors above the Potomac River, Café 44 quickly became a popular spot for happy hour, and its innovative menu delighted Alexandria’s restaurant-loving residents. For a couple of years, Café 44 enjoyed a burgeoning business, until COVID-19 showed up and upended everything.

Though times have been tough and unpredictable for all, Jula Jane, President and CEO of Café 44, has been humbled by the amazing support she and her staff have received from the local community.

Visit Alexandria’s annual and beloved Restaurant Week looked different this year, of course, due to the pandemic. Even though it had to be transformed into a To-Go promotion, restaurants were still grateful for the opportunity to participate. In fact, Jula said she thought it was Café 44’s best Restaurant Week ever, and that “at the end of the two-week-long event, Executive Chef Nicki Schmelzer basically collapsed from exhaustion, but with a smile on her face.” Jula was so encouraged by the community’s support of her business that she is launching a new concept, Bar 44, on that picturesque rooftop terrace at Café 44.

In addition to neighborhood support, government aid packages like the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan program and ALX B2B (Alexandria Back to Business) grants—both designed to financially support small business—made it possible for Café 44 and other businesses to keep the majority of their staff employed.

The truth is, because of that vital neighborhood and government support, more new restaurants are opening up in Old Town North.

Welcome to the Neighborhood Anew

New to the neighborhood are the owners of St. Elmo’s Old Town North, now open on Montgomery Street. Larry and Christine Ponzi are delighted with the warm welcome they have received from members of the community. “People would stop in to say ‘Hi’ and ‘Thank you for doing this’ while we were preparing to open the new space,” said Larry and Christine.

This sculpture represents the entire Alexandria Canal. (Laura Hatcher Photography)

Similar to the vibe in their Del Ray location, the Ponzis had a vision of creating a space for the community to gather and enjoy a simple meal and conversation with friends. As COVID restrictions ease, Christine and Larry hope to add music and poetry readings at St. Elmo’s Old Town North to further that vision.

Traveling Through Time

There are three civic organizations working to support this vibrant, walkable community: the previously mentioned OTNCP, The North Old Town Independent Citizens Association (NOTICe), and the Old Town North Alliance (OTN Alliance).

Old Town North has aged beautifully throughout the centuries, and it will only continue to do so, I am sure. (Courtesy of Niki Van)

In fact, the folks at NOTICe had a thought. “What were the people who lived, worked, and owned businesses in Old Town North up to in 1920?” Both Mary Harris, president of NOTICe, and Trevor Riley, Event Chair of NOTICe, wanted to find out what life was like here 100 years ago. They did their research and came up with The NOTICe Time Capsule: 100 Years Ago in Old Town North.

Hosted by Mary Harris, The NOTICe Time Capsule event will take place Thursday, March 4, at 7:00 pm, live via Zoom. In addition to being president of NOTICe, Mary is an amateur genealogist, and she will introduce some of Old Town North’s residents from 100 years ago. Archeologist and lecturer Pam Cressey, former city archeologist for the City of Alexandria, will also take part in the event. Pam’s work throughout the years has helped Alexandria document and interpret its history over this century. The NOTICe Time Capsule is a true chance to learn about who worked and lived in Old Town North an entire century ago.

The NOTICe Time Capsule will celebrate the past of Old Town North. ( Courtesy of notice-alexandria.org)

The event is free and open to NOTICe members and neighbors near and far. Register to attend at notice-alexandria.org.

Looking Forward

The days are beginning to get longer and spring is looming on the horizon. It won’t be long till the crocuses appear, and forsythia and daffodils vie to be the most joyful yellow of the season. For Alexandria and indeed all of the country, hope springs eternal in the form of COVID vaccines this year. And among all the new growth, the flower that is Old Town North will begin to bloom again.

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