May 312012

Just Outside of Washington DC — Old Town Alexandria

Visiting the Washington D.C. area, you’re constantly reminded of early American history while wandering through the stomping grounds of founding fathers and historical figures. One of the most famous figures, of course, is President George Washington. It was interesting to hear many people I met refer to him affectionately as “George”. Just a 30 minute water taxi ride on the Potomac River took me from National Harbor, Maryland to Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, where I spent an afternoon walking in the footsteps of George.

George Washington Ate Here Sign at Gadsby's in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia

Gadsby’s in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia

While in Alexandria, I met Whitney O’Halek, a historical interpreter with Alexandria Colonial Tours who talked about her city with enthusiasm and pride. Her suggestions of what to see in Old Town Alexandria helped me to make the most of the short time I had to spend there. Whitney was very kind to contribute her insights to accompany my photos in this article.

George Ate Here

Gadsby's Tavern - George Washington's Last Public Meal

Gadsby’s Tavern

Whitney: Just like the sign says, George did in fact eat here at Gadsby’s Tavern — often! The roast duck was his favorite. The door you walk through is the same one George opened and closed himself. He actually gave his last military command from the front steps! One of the hidden gems of the Tavern is in the smallest of the three dining rooms shown in the photo. At the far window, overlooking Cameron Street, is the place where our hometown boy, George, ate his last public meal in November of 1799.

And that delicious picture you see there — that’s Martha Washington’s recipe for Cock-a-Leekie Pie! It’s a Colonial version of chicken potpie that includes chicken, leeks, other veggies, and plums.

Martha Washington's Cock a Leekie Pie Recipe

Martha Washington’s Cock a Leekie Pie Recipe

The House that George Built

George Washington's Alexandria Town House

George Washington’s Alexandria Town House

Whitney: George designed and built the house on this site in 1769 for himself and Martha. They needed to come up to Alexandria very often (for political reasons, to visit friends, to attend services at Christ Church, among other things), but the 10-mile journey from Mount Vernon to Alexandria took nearly half the day by horse.

The house stayed in the family for a few generations, but in the 1850s, the original house burned down. It was finally reconstructed in the 1960s using the same foundation stones that George himself used. They were able to recreate the outside of the house because one of George and Martha’s 8-year-old neighbor girls had drawn a picture of the house for them, and George had kept it with his diaries.

Other Historic Alexandria Homes

Whitney: There are many old homes in Old Town, but there are certain criteria to be awarded a plaque signifying that a house is registered with the Historic Alexandria Foundation. If you see an oval-shaped plaque on a house that says it’s part of the Historic Alexandria Foundation, you can be certain that the house is at least 100 years old, and that it looks the same as it did when it was originally built.

Alexandria Visitors Center

Alexandria Visitors Center, the Ramsay House

Whitney: The Ramsay House (also the Alexandria Visitors Center) is the oldest house in Alexandria. William Ramsay, a Scotsman and friend of George Washington who helped found Alexandria, built the house in 1724 in Dumfries, Va. then later moved the house — by barge! –from Dumfries to Alexandria.

Historic houses in Alexandria, Virginia

The Spite House

Whitney: The tiny blue house (the “Spite House”) was built in 1830. The space used to be an alley between the two houses on either side. One of the men who owned one of the houses liked parking his carriage in the alley, but the wheels would scratch the side of the other house. The guy with the scratched house of course didn’t like that one bit. He asked his neighbor to stop, but the neighbor of course did not. So, the guy with the scratched house decided his daughters needed a playhouse — so he built a house in the alley out of spite! And today we have the narrowest house in the United States of America, right here in Old Town Alexandria!

Christ Church

Christ Church Pulpit from George Washington's Pew

Seated in George Washington’s pew in Christ Church

Whitney: Yes indeed, this was George’s church! He and Martha are not the only famous worshippers, however. Robert E. Lee and his family worshipped here as well. It was completed in 1773 and has withstood every war since the Revolution. During the Civil War, Union troops used the graveyard behind the church as a campground. While the churchyard is about one-half acre, there are over 1000 people buried there.

Graveyard at Christ Church

Graveyard at Christ Church

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Ken Miller at Apothecary Museum

Ken Miller at Apothecary Museum

Whitney: If the walls of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum could talk, there would surely be a lot fewer secrets and mysteries around Old Town! This apothecary was fully functional from its opening in 1792 until it closed in 1933. We know that the Washingtons came here for their pharmaceutical needs because we have a note signed by Martha about picking up a prescription.

The apothecary was forced to close its doors during the Great Depression, but was re-opened six years later as a museum with everything still in its place, as it remains today.

Back to the Present

Alexandria, Virginia viewed from water taxi under Woodrow Wilson Bridge

Alexandria, Virginia from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge

Returning on the water taxi to National Harbor, I watched Alexandria fade in the distance. There will be more of Alexandria to explore another time.

What should I put on the agenda for my next trip to Old Town Alexandria, Whitney?

Whitney: Make time for a Ghost Tour! Be sure to make time for Mount Vernon (and go by water taxi if you can!), and definitely hit up the George Washington Masonic Temple just behind the King Street Metro. It’s quite the interesting place to see, and it gives you a whole new perspective of George, too.

Whitney Hassell

Whitney O’Halek

Whitney O’Halek also maintains a personal blog sharing her travel experiences at QuickWhit!

  53 Responses to “An Afternoon with George in Old Town Alexandria”

  1. The “George ate here” reminds me of the Hemingway places all around Europe – where he stayed, where he ate, where he was, and even where he wasn’t. I do like the Spite house (even though it was built out of spite), very nice playhouse. Looks like a fun, colourful neighbourhood.

  2. Such an interesting tour of Alexandria, Virginia. The Spite House is really quite cute – love the story behind how it came into existence!

    • Thanks, Lisa. Whitney pointed out some great highlights of the area, but there’s still more to see!

  3. Alexandria looks like a lovely place to visit. 🙂

  4. Lovely colourful houses. These colourful old houses always draw my eyes. I just love them.

  5. I want to try the Leek Pie!!

    Does anyone live in the Spite House? Or is it a museum now?

    • The cock-a-leekie pie was delicious. It was a large serving and I ate the whole thing.

    • Annie, Hey there! Unfortunately, it’s not a museum—people actually live there! They don’t live there full-time, just on the occasional weekend, and they let their friends stay there when they come visit.

  6. What an interesting post – I love all the insight that Whitney has and it really makes that time period come alive. The Cock a Leekie dish looks mouthwatering.
    When I look at those old apothecaries I always wonder what product used back then are still relevant today.

    • Whitney has such knowledge of Alexandria and is so passionate about sharing her insights. I’m so glad that I met her there.

  7. How lovely to get a guided tour of Alexandria. It’s a beautiful town, worked there for a while when I lived in DC.

    • It must be really fun to live in D.C. and be so close to such cool places like Alexandria — so much history!

  8. Ha, when I first read the title of this post I was like “….who’s George?” 😛

    And I can’t believe they moved the house via barge!

    • That’s something about moving the house by barge, isn’t it? Especially for that time period. About the title — I was hoping that would get some attention!

  9. I love exploring the historical homes. I have never been to these, just to Mount Vernon. I visited Annapolis a few years ago and I loved exploring the historical spots.

    • Annapolis would be nice to visit and I want to go back to Mount Vernon. It was quite some time ago when I was there. How am I ever going to find the time to go everywhere?? 🙂

  10. Nicely illustrated story about President Number One!

  11. What a great tour of Alexandria! I want to go here on a side trip on my next trip to DC. I love the story behind the Spite House. It would be so interesting to see how it looks inside. Martha’s Cock-a-Leekie Pie sounds almost appealing too.

  12. You really made the most of your stop in Alexandria – but next time could you please get the recipe for Martha Washington’s Cock-a-Leekie Pie?

    • I’ll try to do that, Mette! It was quite tasty, as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t leave a single crumb.

  13. The history in Alexandria is amazing! I lived in Maryland for a while and had planned to move to Alexandria as I loved it so much – unfortunately U.S. Immigration had other ideas and I had to return to Canada.

  14. Wow! I was actually born in Alexandria but knew absolutely nothing about it, not even that “George” was so prominent. I love it. Man, Martha’s pot pie looks delicious!

    • Glad that Whitney and I could bring you up to speed about George! I’m a big fan of pot pies, but this was particularly chock full of goodies & it was a huge serving. 🙂

  15. I loved this post – my son just did a “Living Museum” project at school and he portrayed George Washington! I loved hearing & Seeing more about him! Thanks for sharing it with us!
    Have a great weekend!

  16. Um, I want to move into that little blue house- so cute!! I always envisioned a bright blue house… hehe

  17. I love the old architecture (especially when you can tour the interiors) of the east coast. This looks like a really nice tour, and that pie looks delicious!

    • It can really take you back in time when you can tour inside. I wasn’t able to do that here, but have in other places. Love it.

  18. What a great tour, and your shots are wonderful. That ghost tour sounds like a reason to go back.

  19. Gotta love Alexandria! I think I followed the same steps as you on my last trip. I especially loved the church! That Ghost tour she mentioned sounds very interesting too.

    • Whitney sent me in the right direction about seeing the church. I knew it was a must see especially after she told me I could sit in George’s pew there.

  20. I’ve been through Virginia Beach but never stopped in VA to explore the history. I got a little bit of that in Maryland but what a great look at G-Dub and his life there.

  21. Gosh I love Old Town Alexandria. I am lucky to have a few really good friends who are from VA and DC and I love visiting them. Old Town Alexandria is always high on my list of things to do (again and again). Great post!

    • Thanks, Christina. I’m so happy that Whitney contributed her stories and insights to this post. She’s got me wanting to visit Alexandria again — soon!

  22. I’m so glad people enjoyed the virtual tour! I hope they all come visit–there’s so much to know!

    • Thanks for checking in and answering some readers’ questions, Whitney. I’m going to click on that “tiny blue house” link and check out the interior of the Spite House. Thanks for the info!

  23. […] An Afternoon with George in Alexandria, Virginia […]

  24. Even as a non-American I’m a bit obsessed with American political history, so this is the kind of thing that I would find fun to do.

  25. […] Nice blog piece on George Washington’s legacy in Alexandria: An Afternoon with George […]

  26. I would love to take a historical tour like this – haven’t spent any time in Virginia…

  27. What a lovely post about my adopted home town! You mentioned all of my favorite places here. I heard a different story behind the Spite House, no less spiteful–but certainly less genteel (no daughters’ play houses were involved):

  28. […] Ken Miller at Apothecary Museum in Alexandria, Virginia […]

  29. Thank you for this very educational post. I always pictured Washington’s house as much larger. I know it was a long time ago, but the man owned a plantation. He was wealthy, yet his house when compared to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is rather small.

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