If you’ve spent any time in Alexandria, you’ve noticed (and probably Instagrammed) their brightly colored brick architecture or courtyard gardens. But when it comes to our historic homes, it’s what’s inside that counts. From whispered conversations between founding fathers to hurried orders from Civil War doctors, these parlors and dining rooms have seen history being made. Intrigued? Lucky for you, Alexandria’s historic house museums let you walk through the front door and inside American history:
Image credit: R. Nowitz for Visit Alexandria
Two blocks from the Old Town waterfront stands Carlyle House, the massive stone manor built by Alexandria city founder John Carlyle in 1752. This stately home hosted the likes of George Washington (Carlyle’s good friend and business partner), Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin at parties and balls. During the Civil War the estate was also home to Mansion House, a luxury hotel-turned-Union army hospital that inspired the upcoming PBS original drama Mercy Street.
Tour Carlyle House today to get a behind-the-scenes look at 18th century artifacts, Civil War era medical instruments and the real-life soldiers, doctors and nurses depicted on Mercy Street. (The gardens are a must-see as well.)
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House
Image credit: Steve Brooke
Alexandria is not only home to beautifully-preserved 18th- and 19th–century architecture—it’s also the site of a stunning midcentury modern home designed by iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Constructed in the 1940s, Pope-Leighey is a striking combination of cypress, brick and glass, one of Wright’s more affordable “Usonian” designs. And since Wright designed not just the structure but the furnishings as well, it’s definitely worth it to join a guided tour of the house. Plus, Pope-Leighey sits on the grounds of nearby Woodlawn mansion, just down the road from Mount Vernon, so you can kill three birds with one stone.
Image credit: Gordon Beall
Woodlawn has quite the history. Originally part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, the plantation was Washington’s wedding present to his adopted granddaughter and nephew. He commissioned William Thornton, the first architect of the U.S. capitol, to design the grand Georgian/Federal home. But Woodlawn did not remain a plantation. By the time of the Civil War, Woodlawn was owned by abolitionists who founded a free-labor colony there, an oasis of northern sympathizers in a sea of southern supporters for the duration of the war. Curious? You can explore the twists and turns of history at Woodlawn in a guided tour.
Image credit: Visit Alexandria
Discover another house-tory that spans the American Revolution and the Civil War at Lee-Fendall House, originally purchased by Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. Lee sold the lot to his cousin in 1785, but would frequent the house along with his son, Robert Edward Lee. Years later the Lee-Fendall House was seized by the Union army for use as a hospital. Today you can see the house as it was before, during and after its Civil War occupation, and view Lee family heirlooms, including furniture, portraits, jewelry, letters and handcrafted decorative pieces.
Image credit: Cameron Davidson
Pop quiz: What exotic animal did George Washington bring to his estate to entertain guests at Christmastime? How many eggs did Martha put in her “Great Cake”? Discover the everyday lives of George and Martha at Mount Vernon, still bustling centuries after the general first settled into his Alexandria home. The museum contains documents and ephemera that once belonged to the key players in American history, while tours let you explore Washington’s home, the grounds, gardens and even his final resting place. Oh, and don’t miss the costumed characters.
Find more information about Alexandria’s historic sites and attractions here.
Header image credit: Visit Alexandria