In the premier episode of PBS’ Mercy Street season one, the bulk of the action takes place on the Green family property, including their home, called “the Mansion House,” and their hotel, which was expropriated by Federal troops for use as a Union hospital during the Civil War. The Mansion House Hospital, already transformed from the hotel when the show begins, is where we see Nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Dr. Jed Foster (Josh Radnor) work together treating Union and Confederate soldiers in the first episode.
Image Credit: Antony Platt for PBS
In real life, the idea for Mercy Street also began with the Mansion House, today known as the Carlyle House. It was the real people and events that took place in the Carlyle House and the adjacent Mansion House Hospital during the Civil War that inspired the stories and characters of Mercy Street, including the Green family and Nurse Mary Phinney. Indeed, a recent news story says of series creator Lisa Wolfinger, “When her research discovered Carlyle House in Alexandria and the Civil War hospital that once perched next door, she knew that was the place.” Although Mercy Street is a fictional show, it is based on real events and places in Alexandria, and fans of the show can explore these people and their stories at the Carlyle House, which today stands as a museum and park.
Why is it Called The Carlyle House and The Mansion House?
When Alexandria was founded in 1749, John Carlyle was an original trustee of the city and was considered a leading citizen. He purchased two plots of waterfront property (yes, you read that correctly, the Potomac River was filled in in the 1790’s, creating room for present-day N. Lee St.) and built a luxurious home that looks as it does today, finished in 1752. This is the Carlyle House. After John Carlyle’s death, the property was passed down to his relatives for several years until it was eventually sold to pay off debts. In that period of time, around 1807, the Bank of Alexandria was built on the corner of Cameron and N. Fairfax Streets, where the same building still stands.
Mansion House Hotel/Hospital today. Image Credit: C. Davidson for Visit Alexandria
It wasn’t until 1848, almost a century after the Carlyle House was originally built, that James Green (played by Gary Cole in ‘Mercy Street’), the wealthy owner of a furniture company, buys the property from a man who had been leasing it. The home is widely known as “The Mansion House” given its size and grandiosity. It wasn’t just a mansion, it was the mansion in Alexandria.
The Green Family
By 1849, just one year after purchasing the property, James Green had transformed the Bank of Alexandria building (which closed and failed in 1834) into a luxurious hotel: The Mansion House Hotel. James Green lived in the Carlyle House next door with his wife, Jane (played by Donna Murphy), his daughter Emma (Hannah James), and his son, James Jr. (Brad Koed). These real people are all depicted as fictionalized characters in the show, with an additional daughter played by AnnaSophia Robb. In real life, James and Jane Green had nine children in total.
The Mansion House Hotel was so successful, James Green expanded it with a large, four-story addition across the front lawn of the Carlyle House in 1855, removing the home from public view on Fairfax Street. The Mansion House Hotel was the largest hotel in Alexandria and slept over 500.
Image Credit: S. Stanton for Visit Alexandria
The Carlyle House in the Civil War
Then, in 1861, the Mansion House Hotel was expropriated by Federal troops for Army use during the Civil War. The hotel became the largest military hospital in Alexandria, which is where the PBS series Mercy Street begins in 1862. In the series, the Green family refuses to leave the Mansion House, their home, which is separate from the hospital but right in the thick of the action. In real life, the Green family did leave the Carlyle House as their hotel was occupied, but they stayed in Alexandria at another home they owned nearby.
In 1862, the real Mary Phinney did in fact arrive in Alexandria and was assigned as a nurse to the Mansion House Hospital as is portrayed in the series. Phinney’s detailed diary entries, in addition to the captivating history of the Carlyle House, also inspired series creator Lisa Wolfinger in developing Mercy Street.
Below, the left image is the Mansion House Hospital/Hotel from PBS’ Mercy Street. The right image is the real Mansion House Hospital/Hotel in Civil War Alexandria
Left Image Credit: Antony Platt for PBS. Right Image Credit: Library of Congress
The Carlyle House and the Mansion House Hospital, as well as the Green family, played an integral role in the Civil War, not just in Alexandria. While serving as a male nurse, Walt Whitman spent time visiting the Mansion House Hospital and wrote of one of the nurses, “She is a perfect nurse.” Some of Whitman’s later poems express themes experienced at the Mansion House Hospital.
The desk in the Appomattox Courthouse used by Robert E. Lee to sign his surrender to Grant was also said to have been made by James Green’s furniture company. In last night’s premiere, we learn the fictionalized Green family has plans to make furniture, although they have hopes to make caskets unlike the family in real life.
Mercy Street Inspired Experiences at the Carlyle House
The stars of Mercy Street at the Carlyle House. Image Credit: M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria
Today, visitors to the Carlyle House can dive deeper into the real stories and people that inspired PBS’ Mercy Street. Although the large hotel addition across the front lawn of the Carlyle House was removed in the 1970s and the house itself never saw any medical action, they have interpreted the stories of the hospital and its nurses, doctors and soldiers inside the home, along with histories of the Green family.
During a cast visit to Alexandria, actress Hannah James, who plays Emma Green, said of the Carlyle House, “Being back in the Green family home is quite exciting. It’s actually weird, as we were walking up, it was interesting seeing the outside of the building. I’ve seen actual pictures of Emma Green so it’s fun imagining her here walking up to her house. Also the stairway looks so much like our sets. Lots of little bits of it looks like our set so it’s really fun seeing it all coming together as a piece.” Experience the awe yourself with several Mercy Street inspired events at the Carlyle House:
Far right, Hannah James, who plays Emma Green in PBS’ Mercy Street, stands in Carlyle House where the Green family lived
The exhibit “Who These Wounded Are: The Extraordinary Stories of the Mansion House Hospital” is continuing through 2017, featuring the factual story of the history of the site and its occupants. Upstairs, a new interpretation will explore the lives of these individuals through period hospital rooms and doctor and officer housing.
Check the online calendar for Mercy Street-inspired events at Carlyle House and other historic sites in the city.
For more information on Mercy Street inspired experiences in Alexandria, click here.
Header image by M. Enriquez for Visit Alexandria.