Visitors in Old Town love to admire Alexandria’s beautiful cobblestone streets, but looking up also has its rewards—our city boasts an astonishing collection of historic architecture with unique and interesting features. With 2016 Virginia Architecture Week happening April 9-16 and warmer, longer days, now is the perfect time to take a walk through Old Town to explore the extraordinary architecture around every corner. You can also sign up for the popular Walking Tour of Historic Alexandria this Sunday, April 10 for a more in-depth experience.
For this post, we enlisted the help of local expert Al Cox, an architect and Historic Preservation Manager for the City of Alexandria. Keep reading for Al’s guide to Alexandria’s architectural styles, you’ll learn some fascinating facts that you can use to impress your friends and family on future strolls through Old Town!
Old Town Alexandria’s Architectural Styles
Although in all respects a thriving, modern city, one could be forgiven for thinking Old Town is a giant, free outdoor architectural museum. Before we get going, here’s a handy architecture dictionary to help decipher the more technical terms used:
Keystone: The central stone, sometimes carved, in the curve of an arch or vault.
Lintel: A supporting wood or stone beam across the top of an opening, such as that of a window or door or fireplace.
Flounder: A roof shape having only one sloping plane.
Cornice: Any crowning projection, usually protruding from flat surfaces like the tops of windows or a roof.
For instance, Christ Church, located at the corner of N. Washington and Cameron streets, was constructed between 1767 and 1773. It was designed by English architect James Wren in the Georgian style, so named for the English kings and popular in the colonies until shortly after the Revolutionary War. The tower and steeple, dating from 1785-99 with alterations again in 1818, recall the English churches designed by James Gibbs. The original builder, James Parsons, was unable to complete the job and it was finished by town trustee John Carlyle. Carlyle is known to have had a copy of Batty Langley’s City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs, published in London in 1756, from which he took the design for the Palladian window on the east facade. George Washington, a member of this church, is believed to have copied this window for the north facade of his historic home Mount Vernon in 1776.
Residences were also constructed in the Georgian Style. This house on S. Lee Street was constructed around 1780 by Robert Townshend Hooe, Alexandria’s first mayor. The winged keystones in the lintels above the doors and windows are of Acquia sandstone, as are the belt courses common on this style. Most unusual is the “Gambrel” roof form, more popular in the mid-18th century, which provided more headroom in the attic for children, servants or storage.
Across the street from the Hooe house is the Athenaeum at 201 Prince Street, one of two remaining temple form Greek Revival buildings in the city. It was constructed in 1851 as the Old Dominion Bank. The brick walls are clad in plaster and were originally scored and grained to resemble large stone blocks. The dark red base and steps are of Seneca Sandstone quarried nearby.
Farther to the west, the Patton Fowle House on Prince Street is an excellent example of the Federal Style in Alexandria. This magnificent five-bay, center hall brick house was constructed over the course of three periods: a shed roofed, two bay wide flounder form structure was constructed prior to 1806 on the ½ acre plot purchased by James Patton from the Alexander family in 1797. The flounder was then capsulated and expanded to create the current appearance during a building campaign by Fowle in 1816-1817. Although using the same local red brick as the earlier Georgian buildings, the Federal style is simpler overall, lacking the boldly-carved cornices and window lintels, and substituting a more delicate tracery in the sidelights and transom of the elliptical arch above the front door.
While Alexandria is best known for its large collection of 18th– and early 19th-century buildings in the Georgian or Federal Styles, most of the historic district is made up of late 19th-century buildings from the Victorian period, such as this beautifully detailed example on Prince Street. The local red brick is now machine molded to produce a richly textured façade capped by a slate Mansard roof in the Second Empire style. Improved glass production technology allowed large panes of glass to be used in the paired windows of the projecting bay, increasing the amount of light available on the interior.
Inspiration from Alexandria, Egypt to Alexandria, Virginia
Recently named to the National Register of Historic Places, the George Washington National Masonic Memorial looks down upon Alexandria from the top of Shutter’s Hill. Construction was completed in 1932 on the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. Washington belonged to Alexandria Lodge 22, and was named the lodge’s Charter Master in 1788, when the lodge was located in Alexandria City Hall. This Alexandria landmark was designed by the New York architectural firm Helmle and Corbett, and was inspired by one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Lighthouse at Pharos constructed in the 3rd century BC in the bay of Alexandria, Egypt.
Learn more about Alexandria’s extraordinary architecture here.