I discovered a city that could be an outdoor architecture museum on my walking tour of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. Alexandria’s historic district features more than 200 houses built before 1820. The city was founded in 1749. You can spend a morning strolling one square mile of historic streetscapes in Old Town Alexandria.
National Historic Landmarks abound, from Gadsby’s Tavern to Christ Church. Few other communities in America boast as many examples of Georgian and Federal period architecture. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson embraced a “Federalist” style of architecture when building Mount Vernon and Monticello.
Visit Old Town
Starting at the Carlyle House Park with its guide Patty Sheetz, our group spent a whirlwind 90 minutes traveling through “architectural time.” This architecture tour costs $20 per adult. It is typically offered once a month. Or you can follow Visit Alexandria’s self-guided architectural walking tour of one square mile of Old Town. You start at pretty-in-pink Athenaeum and end at Christ Church.
We visited multiple houses and buildings to examine American architectural examples—Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, and Italianate. According to Sheetz, the “architectural periods last about 40 years.”
This 18th century stone mansion represents the Georgian period in architecture. Scottish merchant John Carlyle completed construction in 1753. He used a veneer of Aquia sandstone to recreate the look of mansions from his homeland. The mid-Georgian house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.
“Today, Carlyle House is one of the nation’s finest examples of Georgian residential architecture.”Nova Parks
While we did not tour the home’s interior, we did examine identifiable features on the exterior, such as symmetrical form and fenestration, stone walls, multi-pane windows, and quoins, the stones that outline the doorway and corners of the house. (Georgian can also include a transom window over the paneled front door, side-gabled or hip roof, and pediment or crown and pilasters at front entry.)
“Georgian architecture is inspired by the symmetry of Greek and Roman villas of antiquity,” said Sheetz. “They also used the Golden Rule formula of length to width to height, which makes the rooms a comfortable size.”
A Georgian house exemplifies British architecture as built in the colonies.
Roman architecture is a precursor to this “classical” architectural style, dating from 5th century BC in Greece. Classical architecture featured columns and pediments.
Our guide said the Carlyle House features a wide center hall and is now fronted with limestone, not Aquia sandstone. “This mansion’s veneer of stone, as opposed to less-expensive brick homes, would have screamed ‘Am I wealthy or what?’”
In 1847, James Green bought the Carlyle House and turned it into a hotel. “In 1861, the Union soldiers came marching into town after Virginia seceded from the Union. It became a hospital, a non-military unit where dogs and cats, Union and Confederate soldiers, convalesced together,” said our guide.
The museum offers tours of this restored 18th-century mansion. Guided tours are available from Monday through Saturday (except Wednesday) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Tours are given on the hour.
Carlyle House Gardens
The Carlyle House also offers a green space where you can walk the dog or eat your lunch alfresco.
Touring the Carlyle House gardens is free. This is an ideal place to stop and rest at a bench, admire the elaborate hedge designs, read a book, or just meditate.
“Designed in the 18th-century style, the garden features carefully researched plant materials which would have been available to John Carlyle during his occupancy.”NOVA Parks
The 3/4-acre garden features brick walks, boxwood parterres, and a cutting garden.
You can’t miss the pink Federalist building in Old Town in this outdoor architecture museum. Although it was originally built as a bank, it now operates as a contemporary art gallery. “A bank clerk hid all the gold before the Yankees invaded Alexandria and the Yankees used it as Commissary Headquarters for the Union Army,” explained our guide.
The building is situated on the cobblestoned road located at the 100 block of Prince Street. This is known as Captain’s Row. It is one block south of the King Street thoroughfare.
The Athenaeum features such Greek Revival signature appointments, as the pediment crowning the top of the building, Doric columns, larger paned-windows, and flattened triangular pediment lintels above the windows.
“The Athenaeum is dedicated to celebrating artists in the DC/MD/VA region and maintaining our historic building as a vital asset to the community.”
Federalist Row Houses
Our guide explains that the town of Alexandria was hatched in 1749. They parceled lots for sale. George Washington bought two lots for his half-brother Lawrence Washington. With its premium location on the Potomac River, Alexandria was a bustling port city.
After the Revolutionary War, residents start to build homes in the “Federalist” style. Georgian architecture (1700-1780) is masculine in style; Federalist style is an extension of Georgian architecture but with feminine enhancements, inspired by the delicate frescoes recently unearthed at Pompeii.
The “Adamesque” style, which is what the Federalist style was called in Great Britain, uses decorations such as framed medallions, swags, and pilasters, making these homes somewhat lighter and more delicate than Georgian. You see swags of garlands as an outer motif. There is a fanlight over the window and thinner muntins separating the window panes in Federal homes compared to Georgian.
Our guide described Federalist architecture as still hewing close to the Adamesque style of the colonists’ foe, England, but throwing in an eagle here and there to put an American stamp on it. There is a lone eagle perched on top of the Federalist former bank building next to the Carlyle House.
Old Town Alexandria Alleys
You will meander past a lot of skinny alleys while touring Old Town. The Hessians did not build the alleys. Residents took the stones from the water to pave the walks. The purpose of alleys was to hide the utilitarian functions of life in the city, such as the barns to house the horses and carriages as well as access for servants.
Old Presbyterian Meeting House
The rather plain brick church building was established before the Revolutionary War. The Church of England was the official church for colonists in Virginia but other denominations gathered in public places known as “meeting houses.” Nearly three centuries later, this historic church still claims its original name.
The first church building dates to 1775. It was destroyed by fire in 1835. The rebuilt church can still claim ties to the original foundation. There is a graveyard behind the church.
“Alexandria’s memorial services for George Washington in 1799 were held in this sanctuary, and the church bell tolled in mourning during the four days between his death and burial.”Old Presbyterian Meeting House
Reportedly, Washington asked his personal secretary Tobias Lear to wait three days before he was buried. There was a fear of being buried alive. “It was a custom to keep the corpse watched for up to three days to ensure one was thoroughly dead before being put into the ground, ” explained Sheetz.
There are multiple historic churches to visit in this outdoor architecture museum.
George Lewis Seaton House
The George Lewis Seaton House was built in the Italianate style (1840-1880). Italianate-style architecture can go “high” or low.” On the inside, all the townhouses are the same. One of the distinguishing symbols of this style is the “eyebrow” decor on the lintel.
As a freed black, Seaton developed two schools and a bank. “He was on the first multi-racial jury that convicted Jefferson Davis of high crimes,” said Sheetz.
Seaton was an architect and master builder. He built several houses in Alexandria between the 1850s and 1860s.
His house is now a Virginia Historic Landmark.
I also learned that Seaton was the first African American member selected to the Virginia General Assembly after the Civil War. He was an “outspoken Radical Republican,” according to Virginia Department of Historic Resources. He was head trustee of the First Free School Society of Alexandria. Seaton also built two schools for African American children. He was a founder of the Colored Building Association and the Colored YMCA.
The Romantic era ushered in a change of sentiment for poets, writers, and architects. The “Romantic” architecture was inspired by medieval architecture. These style houses featured overhanging eaves, curved windows, and “hooded” windows.
“Through the early 1800s, a lot of the modern world was being born. They wanted to go back to a perceived bucolic, pre-industrial, peaceful time. So the Romantics wanted the house to be more natural, more like the rambling farm houses of Tuscany,” said Sheetz.
This style of architecture is less rigid, and asymmetrical. The worship of nature and the woods means that architects (and owners) have a new awareness of the role of landscaping.
Sheetz also guided us to a street with an example of Second Empire (Napoleon III), a French style of architecture. Its crowning motif is the mansart roof, which American builders renamed “mansard” roof. There is a lovely example in Old Town (below). This eclectic style features elaborate decoration, including intricate “cresting” ironwork on the balcony above the columned entrance. Frequently, these homes also had glass skylights.
The Vowell-Smith House is the largest house in Old Town Alexandria. Built in 1854, it spans 12,000 square feet. It is a mandatory visit during your tour of Old Town’s outdoor architecture museum.
“Francis Smith built it on his wife’s property. But they were Confederates so they fled when the North invaded, and it was used as a Civil War hospital” said Sheetz. Located at 510 Wolfe Street, it sits at the corner of South St. Asaph Street. It reminds me of the homes built in the 19th century in Dupont Circle during the Gilded Age as well as the embassies on 16th Street NW in Washington DC.
When you finish your walking tour, consider a stop at a historic tavern or restaurant. Gadsby’s Tavern has been offering fine dining since 1770.
The tavern was named for Englishman John Gadsby. He ran the business from 1796 to 1808. The tavern served as a restaurant, bar, and hotel.
“The two 18th-century taverns that make up Gadsby’s Tavern Museum capture the changing landscape of the early United States.”City of Alexandria, Virginia
After Virginia seceded from the Union in the spring of 1861, the Unionists organized a state government loyal to the United States. The “Restored Government” met at the City Hotel (Gadsby’s Tavern) before relocating to 415 Prince Street.
Our walking tour ended near the Old Town Farmer’s Market. This block-wide market is clustered in the historical “museum” area. The closed-off streets were crowded with families shopping for fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and bakery goods on Saturday mornings.
I loved touring the booths and spending WAYYY to much money on breads and pastries. But I am sad that I can never bring my Golden Retriever dog to shop with me. Sadly, Parker and I must give a one paw down vote to the fact that NO PETS ALLOWED on plaza during market hours.
Outdoor Architecture Museum
My whirlwind tour of Alexandria ended too quickly. But since I live less than 15 minutes away in Washington, DC, I plan to now regularly visit Old Town. Truly, you can walk back in time just by roaming the historic district.
From any corner (after leaving the Farmer’s Market), I could wander down historical streets to see the changing face of Old Town Alexandra over its last three and a half centuries. The Farmer’s Market harkens back to old times when a market area and City Hall were established in 1752.