Alexandria History

Secret Symbology in Old Town Alexandria

Cream colored townhouse with dark door and four letters high atop on the facade, IOOF.
Look high above the door of this elegant townhouse in Old Town Alexandria for a curious set of letters. (Photo: Governor Burke/Unseen Old Town)

ALEXANDRIA, VA – Old Town has its own secret symbols, like something out of a Dan Brown novel. Notable among these is the “IOOF” lettering high up the façade of the elegant townhome at 218 N. Columbus St. Most passersby never notice it, and the few who do, do not know its significance.

The building, now a private residence, has an astonishingly varied history. The land there was once owned by John Alexander, for whom Alexandria is named. The original structure dates from the War of 1812 and was endowed in part by relatives of George and Martha Washington. Its purpose was to host the very first female free school in Virginia.

Painting of a brick three story building with an American flag flying next to it.
This is a postcard printed circa 1930 of the Alexandria Academy. The Alexandria Academy building is a three-story brick structure, located to this day on the east side of South Washington Street, between Wolfe and Wilkes Streets. The Alexandria Lodge of Freemasons, led at the time by Robert Adam, laid the cornerstone of the building on September 7, 1785. (Original illustration acquired by The Zebra Press)

The Washingtons, Martha and George, were big believers in education for their hometown. For example, George endowed the Alexandria Academy on 418 S. Washington St., a grammar school where both Robert E. Lee and black children studied. That school charged nothing for poor children, and $10 a year for others, according to the Historic Alexandria Quarterly.

The N. Columbus St. site expanded in 1841, with the placement of a second story atop the original floor. The builders belonged to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, or IOOF. In Old Town, IOOF was known as a black fraternal organization for African Americans that helped bolster their work and social contacts during a time of slavery and social separation.

During the Civil War, the place became a stable for Union Army cavalry, as well as a prison for pro-Confederate citizens, and one of the many military hospitals in town, like the Carlyle House of Mercy Street television fame. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly in a town that was largely pro-Confederate in sympathy, it served after the war as a meeting place for rebel veterans.  And later, an African-American Methodist church would be organized there.

After the “Late Unpleasantness,” the building morphed into a meeting hall for the St. John’s Academy, a well-regarded military school, with many of its graduates enrolling in the University of Virginia. In the 1940s it was an office of the War Price and Rationing Board, and after that conflict, it became a dance school.

The historical plaque on its front wall reads in part, “Dedicated to…friendship, love, and truth.”

Old brass historic marker with four paragraphs of writing.
The historic plaque at 218 N. Columbus reads The first story was built in 1812 as the first female free school in Virginia endowed by Mrs. Martha Washington and Mr. W. B. Dandredge. Potomac Lodge No. 38 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows purchased the property on November 15, 1841 and erected the second story. During the Civil War the first floor was used to stable the horses of the Federal troops and the second floor served as a hospital. After the Civil War the lower floor was leased to Father Carne who for many years conducted the St. John’s Military Academy. Several of the churches in Alexandria were organized herein. Dedicated to the principals of the Order, friendship, love and truth, many outstanding citizens of Alexandria have taken part in its operation. (Photo: Kevin Vincent, March 16, 2013)

Only in America. Only in Alexandria.

Move over, Dan Brown. Old Town has its own secret signs!

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Edward Moser

Ed Moser is an area tour guide, historian (Washington Area Discovery Hikes | Meetup), and swimmer. Discover Ed Moser’s latest books and tours! The Old Town Horror: Murder and Theft in America’s Most Historic Locale, The Lost History of the Capitol: The Hidden and Tumultuous Saga of Congress and the Capitol Building, The White House’s Unruly Neighborhood: Crime, Scandal & Intrigue in the History of Lafayette Square, and he owns and operates Lafayette Tours in the Washington DC area.

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