On Exhibit

Alexandria’s Historic Places, Spaces, and MuZeums Celebrate Port City’s 275th Anniversary

Trivia Nights are back in the Lee-Fendall House garden this summer. George Washington may never have played trivia, but he dined here! (Photo Lee-Fendall House and Garden)

Alexandria, VA – Ask a native New Yorker, “Have you been to the top of the Empire State Building?” and the likely answer will be…. Nope! Ask an Alexandrian, “Have you been on a walking tour?” and you’ll earn an incredulous look. If you have ever been waylaid by an entourage of 8th graders miraculously engaged by a candlelight ghost tour, you know what all the locals and natives are missing. What better way to celebrate 275 years of Alexandria’s history than to jump on a tour?

Several professional walking tour companies offer trips revisiting Port City’s past, guiding you from its thriving colonial times through the battles of enslaved peoples fighting for freedom and equality – with some great ghostly yarns woven in between.

Colonial history tours feature stops at the historic Carlyle House, the stately Georgian manor home of founding father John Carlyle, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, founded in 1792 and operating in Old Town until 1933, and the Friendship Firehouse Museum.

Not to be missed is Gadsby’s Tavern, the social center of the 1700s, frequented by famous patrons, the first five U.S. presidents among them. The Tavern Museum hosts numerous events throughout the year, with the anniversary of the passing of the legendary spectral Female Stranger on October 14, 1816, being extremely popular. Port City Brewing Company even named a beer for the plaintive mystery woman who stole Alexandria’s heart.

City Councilman John Taylor Chapman owns and operates Manumission Tour Company, which spotlights Alexandria’s African American heritage and history via walking and bus tours. Take a trip back in time with him. (Photo Lillis Atkins Werder for Zebra Press)

Manumission Tour Company is one of the more recent historic tour operators. Founded and operated by City Council’s own John Taylor Chapman, a third-generation Alexandrian, Manumission offers curated, guided cultural heritage tours highlighting Alexandria’s African American history with walking and bus experiences from February through December. They even provide personalized group tours and step-on services upon request.

Highlights of the African American historical immersion time travel include the Freedom House Museum, the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library, the site of one of the earliest civil rights sit-ins in the U.S., and the African American Heritage Park. Guided tours spotlight theme experiences such as Freedom’s Fight, Duke Street’s Black History, and the Underground Railroad in Alexandria. There are special-event tours and theater offerings to explore as well.

There are several other tour operators in Old Town. Alexandria Colonial Tours, celebrating 50 years in ALX, is the original award-winning ghost and graveyard experience. It’s locally owned and operated, having repeatedly earned the Tripadvisor “Travelers Choice” kudos.

Alexandria History Tours is local and veteran-owned, featuring themed tours such as The Revolutionary War and Alexandria, George Washington’s Alexandria Tour, and the Discover Alexandria Tour. There’s also a private Alexandria and the Civil War Tour.

Gravestone Stories focuses upon a different side of the afterlife – specifically the Wilkes Street Cemetery. With perspectives from colonial and Revolutionary figures and heroes to the antebellum period, these tours discover the expansive breadth of Alexandria’s history uncovered at the resting places of those famous and infamous: founding families and fathers of the City having a hand in writing the Declaration of Independence, heroes and villains, as well as civil rights pioneers of the City’s past 275 years.

Gravestone Stories also offers a Firefighter’s Tour delving into Alexandria’s heroic firefighting history. The tour takes you to five historic fire stations and sites of heroism among the pioneers of firefighting, including the Friendship Firehouse Museum. Learn the methods of colonial fire brigades. Revisit the Great Fire of January 18, 1827, which, having consumed dozens of businesses and homes, irrevocably altered the shape of the City.

No visitor to Alexandria, least of all a native, should ever admit to not having been to Mount Vernon. That’s Port City sacrilege. And if you haven’t been to George Washington’s Mount Vernon since grade school, you haven’t been to Mount Vernon.

In addition to expanding museum exhibit space and the education center’s new interactive experiences on the MV campus, the mansion house has been restored to be as exactingly and authentically close to the home George and Martha enjoyed as possible. You won’t recognize it!

Alexandria proudly claims our first president as its most famous resident. Washington worshiped at Christ Church in Old Town, imbibed at Gadsby’s Tavern, and even kept a townhouse on Cameron Street – a stone’s throw from Christ Church. As early as the end of the American Revolution, Alexandria was referred to as Washington’s hometown.

Guest rooms in the newly renovated Mount Vernon mansion house. Vibrant colors, wall coverings, and lavish fabrics were de rigeur for a well-appointed home in the 18th century. (Photos Kelly MacConomy)

A few blocks away at 614 Oronoco sits the Lee-Fendall House Museum and Garden. This marvelous museum has strived to represent and interpret American history through the experiences of the people who lived and worked at the property from 1785 through 1969.

While the property may be better known as home to 37 members of the Lee family, the house was built on three one-acre lots purchased by Revolutionary War hero Lieutenant Colonel Harry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III. Not only was he a good friend of General George Washington, they fought alongside each other during the war. He later became a major general, senator, and governor of Virginia.

Lee sold one of the lots to his father-in-law, Phillip Richard Fendall, who built the house for his second wife, Elizabeth. A favorite of George and Martha Washington, Elizabeth was a frequent guest at Mount Vernon and hostess to the Washingtons. Records indicate that the first couple dined at the Fendall home seven times. The Fendalls were cherished participants in the Mount Vernon social circle.

However you celebrate Alexandria’s 275th anniversary this year, be sure to stop and read a historic plaque or two. Take a ghost or historic ALX tour. Don’t forget the fireworks on July 13. And as Martha Washington was fond of saying re her endless parade of houseguests,

Let all y’all eat hoe cake!

ICYMI: Second Plaque for Deceased Vietnam Soldiers Will Be Dedicated June 14 in Alexandria

Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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