(Continuation of our east coast adventure in early May) After a restful sleep and shower at the Day’s Inn in Arlington, Virginia, we hit the road for Alexandria, and once again thanked our “lucky stars” for helping us to get a rental car the night before, following our late arrival in Washington D.C.
With the heat and high humidity, Virginia is verdant and beautiful with green deciduous trees, flowering bushes, and emerald green lawns. We passed street-after-street of beautiful historical houses surrounded by blooming peonies, azaleas, rhododendrons, wisteria, lilacs, morning glories, hydrangea, honeysuckle, and ornamental grasses. Virginia makes my heart pitter-patter even if I keep hearing the voice of people I know who’ve lived in the South, and speak fervently about the dreaded humidity and heat of Virginia summers.
We had no problem finding parking a parking spot in downtown Alexandria, across from the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, a retailer, wholesaler, and manufacturer of herbal botanicals, which was founded in 1792. After feeding the parking meter, with a tour map in hand, we set out along the narrow, occasionally cobblestoned streets to seek out and snap pictures of historical shops, houses, and taverns.
Because much of downtown Alexandria has been gentrified with the historical buildings restored rather than taken down, on nearly every block a building or street is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. I was in awe of the ornate, Georgian row houses with tall rectangular windows, shutters painted in contrasting colors, pretty entryways, low picket or metal fences, and tall brick chimneys.
I immediately longed to move from our suburban home with a big yard to a cute little row house. Then it occurred to me, these houses were building in the 1700’s when plumbing consisted of a pitcher and washbasin for a sink, and a chamber pot for a commode. In addition, the kitchens were probably small, requiring a table for preparing foods, shelves for dishes, and a fireplace for cooking. Accommodating a modern kitchen with a stove, oven, dishwasher, double-sink, refrigerator, and cupboards, would require major remodeling, electrical, and plumbing, and most likely, the need to expand into another room.
In addition, the only light that comes into a row house (unless located at the end of a row) is through the windows in the front and rear of the house… and if your house is on the National Register, you need to keep the original windows. The most difficult aspect – at least for me – would be the proximity to the street. The front doors of the row houses we saw were a handful of steps from the edge of the sidewalk. Pedestrians walk within a few feet (or inches) of your front windows and doors. Closing your drapes doesn’t become a choice, but a necessity.
Okay. Skip living in a historical row house in an east coast city!
After an hour or so, we decided to duck into The Lyceum, a grand hall, built by the Alexandria Lyceum and the Alexandria Library Company in 1839 for lectures, scientific experiments, and “quiet reading.” The building was later used as a Civil War hospital, private home, office building, nation’s first Bicentennial Center, and currently Alexandria’s History Museum. While small, the museum provided information about the area, founding of the United States, and of course, the Civil War.
Also of interest was the Gadsby Tavern, built in 1785. The tavern and associated hotel became the center of Alexandria’s economic, political and social live in the late 18th and 19thcenturies. Visitors included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe.
Recently, a portion of the tavern’s basement was restored. From the sidewalk, you can walk down a small flight of stairs to a large window, which allows you to look down into a cistern, for storing water, and also a portion of the basement for cold storage. Food was kept cold by storing below ground.
Nestled among the houses was Christ Church, the first Episcopal Church in Alexandria. Completed in 1773 by Scottish merchant John Carlyle, the church was regularly attended by George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
I was too short to look inside the church, but Rich said there were “gated” sections of pews, which were assigned to local families for their use.
The churchyard, surrounding the church had dozens of worn gravestones, which had been moved throughout the decades for construction and during the Civil War, when they had been stacked against the parish walls. From the late 1700’s to 1809, it’s estimated around 1,000 people, including eleven African-Americans were interred in the scarcely half-acre churchyard.
Located in the center of Alexandria is Market Square, one of the oldest continuous operating farmers’ markets in the nation where local farmers, including George Washington (who owned five farms in Mount Vernon) used to sell their crops.
The square was also used for public meetings and military operations. According to a website on historical Alexandria, “In 1755, Gov. Robert Dinwiddie designated George Washington (age 23) colonel and commander-in-chief of all Virginia forces; and Washington is known to have reviewed and possibly drilled the local Fairfax County militia and the militias of four other counties in Market Square. Later, as the colonies prepared for the Revolution, George Washington was appointed commander of the Fairfax independent militia companies, and he reviewed the militia troops in Alexandria’s Market Square in early January 1775. On June l5, 1775, the Second Continental Congress selected George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Armies.”
After wandering through historical Alexandria for a few hours, and seeing that our parking meter needed to be feed, we drove to a few miles to the Torpedo Factory Art Center. I was super excited about seeing the factory because I’d read about it in advance and knew it has become one of the largest visual art centers in the country with 82 artist studios, six galleries, an art school, and the Alexandria Archaeology Museum.
The multi-building complex was built after World War I by the U.S. Navy to manufacture torpedoes. Production continued until 1945 when the buildings were used for a government storage facility. Years later, the city of Alexandria renovated the building into working studio spaces for artists and craftspeople.
Rather than look at art, our goal for visit the Factory was to grab a quick lunch, and then head to Mount Vernon.
The Factory beaconed us and we ended up spending over an hour quickly walking through the three floors of extraordinary art from paintings to photography, jewelry, ceramics, sculpture, beadwork, lithography and prints (they have a larger area filled with art presses), and glasses. I could have spent all day casually wandering through the galleries.
Finding something decent to eat for lunch was a different matter with three to four fast food joints in the Factory’s food court. We settled on splitting a plate of dreadful Chinese fried noodles, mystery meat, and vegetables (primarily cabbage). Nauseated, but our stomachs full, we set out for Fort Ward.
Located a short drive from downtown Alexandria, Fort Wardis the best preserved of the Union forts and batteries built to protect Washington D.C. during the Civil War. Today, it looks like a giant park with a handful of canons and signs, pointing out how the site was used. The latter isn’t readily obvious mainly because warfare wasn’t overly sophisticated during the Civil War. Essentially, battalions of men would race up hills, over berms, and around other obstacles. The battalion in the most strategic location or with canons would kill most of the men in the other battalion; thereby becoming the winners.
Thousands upon thousands of men would be killed in a single day, left to rot on the battlefield their single-shot muskets at their sides. It was a macabre and horrible war. It’s estimated 620,000 Americans died from battle deaths or disease during the war.
After visiting Fort Ward, we drove to Mount Vernon, passing the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. This colossal memorial and museum sit on top of a hill, overlooking downtown Alexandria. Running short on time, we skipped seeing it, which in retrospect was wise.
I was expecting the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardensto take an hour or two to tour. Ha!
The estate and associated visitor centers, gardens, and buildings are extensive, and if you dawdled, could take all day to visit. Along with buying a ticket to see Washington’s house, we decided to go on a 45-minute cruise of the Potomac River, which runs along the back of the estate. Unfortunately, the gloom of the day didn’t lift so the cruise wasn’t overly scenic, but it was a nice opportunity to sit down, relax, and nibble on popcorn as we viewed the shoreline.
Prior to getting on the boat, we zoomed by Washington’s tomb, which I found creepy. The burial vault, which also houses Martha and other members of the Washington family, is quite sizable. In the middle is Washington’s ossuary, no doubt, containing not much more than his bones, dentures made from hippopotamus teeth, and war medals, which unlike flesh and clothing, taking longer to disintegrate.
Following the boat ride, we visit the pioneer farmer site, which was representative of Washington’s farming operations on his plantations. People in period clothing were on hand to elaborate on farming techniques, the “joys” of being a slave, and the operation of his innovative 16-sided barn.
Yes, unlike what Michele Bachman believes, the founding fathers may have expressed a dislike for slavery, but weren’t hesitant to use them to boost their personal fortunes. In the case of Washington, there were 316 slaves at Mount Vernon, including 123 owned by Washington, 40 leased from a neighbor, and 152 dower slaves, which were part of his wife Martha’s first husband’s estate.
Wikipedia notes, “As on other plantations during that era, his [Washington’s] slaves worked from dawn until dusk unless injured or ill and they were whipped for running away or for other infractions. They were fed, clothed, and housed as inexpensively as possible, in conditions that were probably quite meager. Visitors recorded contradictory impressions of slave life at Mount Vernon: one visitor in 1798 wrote that Washington treated his slaves “with more severity” than his neighbors, while another around the same time stated that ‘Washington treat[ed] his slaves far more humanely than did his fellow citizens of Virginia.’ Washington’s writings show that he had a low opinion of the honesty and willingness to work of his slaves, as well as of the ability of his overseers to control them. The overseers were given written authorization to whip those slaves he considered to be in need of such ‘correction,’ including female slaves.”
Although, Washington was the only prominent, slaveholding Founding Father to emancipate his slaves, which he did following his and his wife’s death.
As noted previously, Rich and I must have been asleep through American history, because neither one of us knew that Washington had slaves. And discovering he was an enthusiastic slave-owner sored much of our visit to Mount Vernon.
We rambled across the estate, interpreting everything we saw with a bias. “Gee, could Washington had accumulated and worked 8,000 acres of fruit and vegetables, formal gardens, nurseries and greenhouse for propagating new plant and seed varieties, and an extensive fishing operation if he to pay for labor versus working slaves from dawn to dusk, six days a week?”
Plus, George and Martha extensively entertained, keeping the domestic slaves hopping from slaughtering animals and preparing meals to laundering and ironing clothes and linens, cleaning the mansion, and doing what’s necessary to ensure horses and carriages were ready at a moment’s notice.
Not only did slaves have to do all of the work around the estate, but they had to make their own clothes and shoes, grow and prepare their own food, and somehow care for their children and personal needs.
Okay, looking past the slavery issues, there were many innovations on the estate, which were noteworthy. There were small outdoor privies or toilets called necessaries with drawers in the bottom to collect human waste. This waste, along with that of farm animals was placed in the dung repositoryto decompose and be turned into fertilizer for crops.
Washington inherited the mansion from his father and expanded and remodeled it several times. To create a stone-like exterior, the walls were sprayed with a mixture of paint and sand. The interior is surprisingly ornate with marble fireplaces, baroque ceilings and carved molding, rich wood paneling, large oil paintings, and elegant drapery and furniture. Check out a virtual tourof the mansion.
Hands down, our favorite part of the estate was visiting with Martha Washington. We were about ready to leave and saw a building, which we hadn’t gone into. The attendant at the door told us to enter quietly because “she had guests.”
Inside were rows of chairs with a small stage with period furniture and knick-knacks. Seated on an upholstered chair was Martha Washington in an ornate dress, talking about her life at Mount Vernon. The woman playing Martha was extraordinary. You could ask her any question and in a conversational tone she’d respond, speaking as if it was still the 1700’s.
Rich and I were mesmerized. She talked about how various politicians didn’t support Washington, creating strife and questioning his ethics. One politician she refused to name. I believe she was referring to Patrick Henry who opposed the United States Constitution and refused to attend the Constitutional Convention of 1787, claiming he “smelt a rat in Philadelphia.”
If you closed your eyes, it sounded as if she was talking about the mendacity and “terrorist tactics” of today’s Republicans who refuse to support anything President Obama proposes!
Running out of time, and needing to get to Rock Hall, Maryland to get on the boat we were chartering, we had to zoom through the Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, two large complexes with fascinating exhibits and educational galleries and theaters. If we visit the east coast again, we’ll have to visit Mount Vernon once again.