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

Happpy 275th Birthday Alexandria!

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 history than to jump in 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 city 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 1700’s, frequented by famous patrons, the first five US 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 Brewery 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. Photo Lillis Atkins Werder.

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 that highlight Alexandria’s African American history with both 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 Barrett Library, site of one of 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.

Councilman Taylor can be spotted leading tours throughout Old Town on weekends. Give him a friendly wave and he’ll return it with a smile and a nod. Better still, hop on board the Manumission train through Alexandria’s richly historic past! You’ll be thankful that you did.

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 also local as well as 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.

From Old Town to Mount Vernon and beyond reenactor extraordinaire Steven Mark Diatz impeccably brings history to life. Photo Scott MacConomy

Gravestones 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 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 the new museum exhibit space and education center’s 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 George Washington as its most famous resident. He 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.

The General’s office and pied-a-terre on Cameron Street was built between 1769 and 1771. The townhouse was torn down in 1855 then rebuilt in 1960 to resemble the original house. 508 Cameron street was the only house Washington ever designed and built for himself. He inherited Mount Vernon from his half-brother Lawrence. It’s now a posh place to stay in Old Town.

The George Airbnb on Cameron Street was reconstructed based upon Washington’s original house on the site. The intense color shown here is similar to those employed at Mount Vernon in the Green Room and the family dining room.

So while you’ll be tempted to try some of the beds that welcomed an unrelenting stream of visitors to the Mount Vernon Estate, why not book and bunk here instead. The George of Old Town, owned and renovated by Steven and Martha Peterson, is listed on Airbnb. The house can accommodate sleeping arrangements for up to 20 people. Individual rooms or the entire townhouse may be booked. Guests receive complimentary tickets to George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Steven Patterson explains. “We worked closely with Mount Vernon to ensure that our guests at The George have an opportunity to see and fully experience the history of our initial property owner.” They’ve exceeded all expectations in creating an inviting and elegant homage to the legacy of the man and his manse. The artful touches incorporated into the design paired with the subtle compliments to George and Martha’s decorators transform the modest Old Town row house into a modern masterpiece worthy of Architectural Digest.

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.

A few blocks away at 614 Oronoco sits the Lee-Fendall House Museum and Garden. This marvelous museum has strived to represent an interpretation of 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 thirty-seven members of the Lee family, the home 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.

The Lee-Fendall House also served as a hospital for Union troops during the Civil War. The Union Army must surely have been delighted in occupying a Lee homestead. Tours are offered Wednesdays through Sundays. Be sure to check the calendar of events for special themed exhibits and tours, activities, and celebrations. Among their most popular soirée each year is the Sips and Secrets: A Speakeasy Night fundraiser, a nod to the bootlegging period of the home during the Prohibition era.

Now you know where you can eat and sleep and party like George Washington and Alexandria’s founding fathers. But did you know you can also get married and celebrate a wedding at these places? The Carlyle House, the Lee-Fendall Home, and River Farm, built on one of Washington’s original five farms, are very popular wedding locations. Gadsby’s Tavern, the Athenaeum Art Gallery, the Lyceum, and the Torpedo Factory are routinely hosting weddings and other receptions.

Port City didn’t have its own Potomac Tea Party in 1773 but tea totaling traditions have held fast. Tea cups of various design and medium can be found in artist studios at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Photo Kelly MacConomy

The Torpedo Factory Art Center and the Athenaeum are perfect examples where history and art combine. The over one-hundred-year-old former munitions factory presents three floors of working artists studios. The Athenaeum on Prince Street, is one of Alexandria’s two surviving examples of Greek neoclassical architecture open to the public. The other is the Lyceum, Alexandria’s History Museum on South Washington Street.


The Athenaeum was built as the Bank of the Old Dominion. Robert E. Lee banked there. Ironically during the Civil War the building was the Chief Commissary office for the Union Army. After the war it was owned by Citizens National Bank. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop bought the building in 1907 and used it as a factory. Then it became the First Free Methodist Church in the area. Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association purchased the building in 1974. The rest was fine art history!

Art by Barbara Januszkiewicz previously exhibited at the magnificent historic Greek revival Athenaeum gallery space. Once the Old Dominion Bank, Robert E. Lee kept his money here. Photo Kelly MacConomy

From June 27 through August 4, 2024 the spotlight at the Athenaeum is a reprise of the ever-eclectic Artomatic 2024. The exhibit, Curators’ Selects Artomatic 2024, showcases 15 of the over 800 artists who participated in the DC event this past spring. Athenaeum Gallery Associate Elizabeth Brown, Director Twig Murray, and Executive Director Veronica Szalus selected works from emerging artists discovered among the 8 floors of progressive exhibit spaces, inventive installations, and real-time happenings staged in a vacated office building downtown. There is an artists reception on Sunday, July 7 from 4-6pm.

River Farm on East Boulevard is another historic location exhibiting art. Currently on exhibit in the estate house ballroom through August 26, 2024 is Nature’s Spirit, showcasing the mosaics of Nina Tisara and photography of Steven Halperson. The property has a storied history from prehistoric stonework tools dating back to 3,000 B.C. find to becoming one of George Washington’s five farms to a near Russian purchase by the Soviet Embassy. Saved by local outcry, the property became the headquarters for the American Horticultural Society. Threatened with yet another sale three years ago, River Farm was rescued yet again by another chorus of public uproar and the generosity of NOVA Parks.

Gilpin House at 208 King Street, now the Principle Gallery, was built by Colonel George Gilpin in 1798. Gilpin served with General Washington, was a surveyor of Alexandria, a Mason of theAlex andria Lodge, a vestryman of Christ Church, and a pallbearer to our first president. He was also the husband of Martha Washington’s cousin.

The clay for the bricks still exposed throughout the chic gallery space and the stone for the foundation were excavated from the nearby cliff dropping to the Potomac back when modern-day Union Street was submerged. Exhibits change monthly with opening receptions open to the public held the second or third Friday of each month.

Art and history are all around Alexandria. Not to be left out of the party, Del Ray Artisans has created a 275th anniversary yarn bombing of candles on the Colasanto Center fence at 2704 Mount Vernon Avenue. The building was built as the Health Department in 1919 for Alexandria County, which became Arlington County a year later. Back then Del Ray was known as the Town of Potomac, technically part of Arlington until Alexandria annexed it in 1930.

Over in the best-end West End the Alexandria Office of the Arts is currently sponsoring an exhibit of Alexandria artists at the lobby gallery space of the Mark Center Hilton. The 30-story Hilton, boasting unparalleled views of the DMV, was built on land owned by the philanthropists/environmentalist Catherine Winkler Herman who donated the adjacent undeveloped land for the Winkler Botanical Preserve in memory of her developer husband Mark Winkler.

The 44.6 acres of land, whose ownership was transferred from the City to the regional agency NOVA Parks, are a remarkable oasis in an urban desert. Its verdant woodland trails, streams, ponds and waterfall are a triumph of ecological preservation and the landscape architecture of Tori Winkler Thomas, daughter of Mark and Catherine.

However you celebrate Alexandria’s 275th anniversary this year be sure to stop and read an historic plaque or two. Take a ghost or historic ALX tour. Check out the numerous art spaces housed in historic places- it’s all free. 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!



Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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