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Alexandria, Virginia

American History, In Full Bloom

In spring, a town steeped in the country's past opens its oldest homes and prettiest gardens

March 02, 1997|DALE M. BROWN | Brown is a former editor at Time-Life Books

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Though it lies just five miles south of Washington, D.C., Alexandria seems a whole world--and time--away. Because it languished as a backwater across the Potomac while our nation's capital grew by leaps and bounds, much of Alexandria's past survives today. Amazingly, it is not Williamsburg that has more 18th and early l9th century buildings. It is Alexandria.

Washington may have its grand monuments and big hotels, but nearby Alexandria has history reduced to a human scale. Yet many visitors to Washington do not know of the city's existence, which is a pity.

In fact, if I were a visitor to the capital area instead of a resident, I would stay in Alexandria and absorb its charm before venturing into downtown Washington, D.C., reached by subway in only 20 minutes. Besides its own share of historic sites, Alexandria has more than 40 antique stores and as many art galleries, a wide assortment of good restaurants and several fine hotels. And being a southern city, it is a hospitable one. On April 19, for example, it will open many of its best private houses and gardens to the public as part of Virginia's annual Historic Garden Week. It is then that the whole town bursts into bloom.

Laid out on a grid plan in 1749, Alexandria attracted some of the British colonies' wealthiest citizens who put up homes and churches on the newly cleared lots. Among the most famous of the locals was George Washington, who often came to town from his Mt. Vernon estate eight miles upriver to conduct business and amuse himself. When he was only 17, he produced what is considered the earliest extant map of Alexandria. And despite the revolt he later led against the British crown, several streets he identified in his neat penmanship continue to bear their royal names: King, Queen, Prince, Princess and Duke.

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If the Father of Our Country were to return to Alexandria in 1997, almost 200 years after his death, he would find much that he knew during his lifetime unchanged, especially at the city's core, called Old Town. His pew waits for him in Christ Church. Houses where he and Martha were entertained still stand. Gadsby's Tavern, his frequent watering hole, even has his favorite meal--roast canvasback duck with cranberry sauce, creamed onions and a string bean ragout--set out on a table in the private dining room he used on many occasions. Only one disappointment would attend him there today: The food is wax.

Despite being known as George Washington's hometown, Alexandria can boast more than a Colonial past. It is also the place where Confederate commander in chief Robert E. Lee grew up and the spot where the first blood of the Civil War was spilled in May of 1861. (A plaque on the Holiday Inn on King Street marks the location.) You have only to pause at the corner of Washington and Prince streets to behold the symbolic embodiment of this other past.

Islanded in the middle of four traffic lanes stands the bronze statue of a Confederate soldier on a high granite pedestal. Head bowed in reflection, his right hand clutching his crumpled hat, he faces forever southward. Commemorating the Alexandria men who served in the War Between the States (as the event is yet referred to by some Old Town residents), the statue has been knocked down more than once by an errant car but has always been hoisted back in place.

As so often happens when you live and work in a historic place like this, you leave the sightseeing to others. That is not to say that I took Alexandria and its past for granted. I had merely failed to visit its most famous sites. Last spring my wife and I set out to correct this wrong. By the time our explorations ended, I found a whole new civic pride welling up in me.

We began our tour at Ramsay House, on the northeast corner of King and North Fairfax streets, across from Market Square. Here the oldest continuously operated outdoor market in the United States takes place on Saturday mornings. The 1724 original of this dormered, clapboard structure was floated downriver on a barge and set in place on a high stone foundation as the temporary office and home of William Ramsay, a Scotsman and town founder. Today the reconstructed building serves as the Alexandria Convention & Visitors Assn., where free maps and brochures are available and walking tours given by passionately knowledgeable docents can be arranged.

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