Founded in 1749, Old Town Alexandria stands as a pioneer of early historic preservation efforts and is ranked the third oldest locally designated historic district in the U.S., following Charleston’s historic district and the French Quarter in New Orleans. A host of historic house museums highlight the beginnings of America, weaving the rich tapestry of the city’s history from 18th-century to the present. We’ve rounded up the top must-see historic houses and house museums in Alexandria, from our first president’s home to one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Usonian” masterpieces. There’s a unique story behind every door.
Historic House Museums
Image Credit: K. Summerer for Visit Alexandria
Just off King Street and two blocks from the Old Town waterfront stands Carlyle House, the home of one of Alexandria’s founders, John Carlyle. Completed in 1753 and on the National Register of Historic Places, Carlyle House is architecturally unique in Alexandria as the only stone 18th-century mansion. 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. It was one of the grandest mansions in the new town of Alexandria, quickly becoming a center of social and political life. Today, the house stands as a museum where visitors can get a behind-the-scenes look at Alexandria’s history over the course of time. The gardens are a must-see as well.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Image Credit: Kevin Ambrose for Mount Vernon
Located just eight miles south of Old Town, Alexandria is the most visited historic estate in America: George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The first president’s beautiful riverside estate includes the mansion, outbuildings, tomb, working farm, distillery and gristmill, and new interactive visitor facilities with 25 galleries and theaters. Visitors get a glimpse into 18th-century life through beautiful gardens and grounds, intriguing museum exhibits, and immersive programs honoring George Washington’s life and legacy. Don’t miss the newest exhibition, Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, where visitors can explore the personal stories of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon while providing insight into George Washington’s evolving opposition to slavery.
Image Credit: Woodlawn Facebook Page
Woodlawn, the first site operated by the National Trust, has quite the history.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. You can explore the twists and turns of history at Woodlawn in a guided tour.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House
Image Credit: Paul Burk
Designed in the 1940s, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House is a “Usonian” house designed for the middle class. The house was created after a couple with a modest budget sought after Wright’s talents and he agreed to create their dream home. Visitors can enjoy tours of the house, which is located on the grounds of Woodlawn, a 126-acre estate that was originally part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The Pope-Leighey House measures at just 1,200 square feet, but Wright’s combination of high ceilings, large expanses of glass, and an open floor plan creates the illusion that it is much larger.
Image credit: M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria
Discover a home in Old Town that spans the American Revolution and the Civil War at Lee-Fendall House, which today stands as a museum and garden. Constructed in 1785, the house has been home to prominent Alexandria families, hundreds of Union soldiers during the Civil War, and labor leader John Lewis. Today you can see the house as it was before, during and after the Civil War, tour the gardens and view Lee family heirlooms.
Image Credit: L. Barnes for Visit Alexandria
In a place as historic as Alexandria, it only makes sense that the Visitor Center is located in one of the city’s most historic buildings, Ramsay House. It was once the home to the family of William Ramsay, Scottish merchant and city founder who also served as the city’s first mayor. Built in 1724, Ramsay House is believed to be the city’s oldest structure. Today, visitors can stop by any day of the week to learn more about Alexandria, pick up tour tickets and more.
Must-See Historic House Exteriors
Some of Alexandria’s best gems are not open to the public but can be admired from the outside.
Image Credit: W. Connett for Visit Alexandria
Spite House is the skinniest historic house in America at just seven feet wide. When John Hollensbury built it in 1830 to keep loiterers out of his adjacent alley, he could not have imagined this Old Town landmark’s popularity with passersby nearly two centuries later. The vivid blue house may have been built for spite, but today it brightens the 500 block of Queen Street and is a private home. Take a stroll through the neighborhood to this Instagrammable house to see for yourself just how tiny it is.
George Washington’s Townhouse
Image Credit: W. Connett for Visit Alexandria
A short walk from the Spite House at 508 Cameron Street stands George Washington’s former town house. Washington purchased this lot in 1763, and his town house was completed in 1769. He maintained an office with a secretary there to receive and accommodate belated visitors to Mount Vernon. The house, noted for its simplicity of design, was torn down in 1855. In 1960, Governor and Mrs. Richard Barrett Lowe had the house rebuilt on the original foundation, using bricks and stones from the excavation. It is now a private home, but is history worth seeing right in the heart of Old Town.
Image Credit: Jeff Hancock
The Murray-Dick-Fawcett House, located at 517 Prince Street, is one of the earliest and least-altered homes in Alexandria. The 244-year-old timber frame and brick dwelling was one of the few buildings in existence in the area during the American Revolution. Visitors can view the exterior of the home as they enjoy the property’s park and garden, just off King Street.
Find more information about Alexandria’s historic sites and attractions here.
Header Image Credit: M.Enriquez for Visit Alexandria