Posts Tagged With: Old Town Alexandria

Old Town’s Alley Houses

The narrowest house in Old Town (and reportedly the narrowest house in the country) is located on the 500 block of Queen Street and is known as the Spite House. It gets way too much attention, given a relatively unknown competitor three blocks away from us on Prince. (Nonetheless, it made it into one of our previous posts . . .)

The place even rated a story in the New York Times, from which we’ve quoted its origins: “The house, 7 feet wide, about 25 feet deep and a whopping 325 square feet in two stories, is a tiny landmark on Queen Street in the Old Town district in Alexandria, Va., just across the Potomac from Washington. Structurally, it’s more of an enclosed alley than a house — the brick walls of older houses on either side form the painted brick walls in the living room. It’s called the Spite House by some because John Hollensbury, the owner of one of the adjacent houses, built it in 1830 to keep horse-drawn wagons and loiterers out of his alley. Indeed, the brick walls of the living room have gouges from wagon-wheel hubs.”

The article cites the Spite House’s 7-foot width. It’s actually wider than that. How do we know? We freakin’ walked over and measured it one day. It’s 7′ 6.5″ wide.

We measured it because we were convinced the tiny house closer to us on Prince Street was actually narrower and should be getting the spotlight that was always the freakin’ Spite House. Here’s the Prince Street house:

It clocks in at 8′ 1.5″ wide. Wider than Hollensbury’s house by 7 inches. We’re surprised and annoyed, but numbers don’t lie.

Here they are, side by side:

Unlike the Spite House, the house on Prince wasn’t built out of spite, but as a means to generate rent revenue. According to our copy of “Historic Alexandria Virginia Street by Street: A Survey of Existing Early Buildings” the house was “built before 1883, when Samuel H. Janney bequeathed to his son, Henry, the rents accruing from ‘the three-story brick house and the small two-story brick house adjoining thereto on the northwest corner of Prince and Royal.'”

Although the little Prince (Street) wasn’t built out of spite, it does share an attribute with the Spite House that few other town houses in Old Town do – it’s an alley house. A house built in what previously was a narrow alley between two larger houses, and that may use one or both sides of the houses on either side of the alley, instead of having independent sides, separate from the other houses.

This was brought to our attention in this article last week by Sarah Dingman in Alexandria Living magazine, which identified this as one of only three other alley houses in Old Town, in addition to the Instagram favorite, the Spite House.

Another of the alley houses can be found 11 blocks west of the little guy above, on the 1400 block of Prince Street:

From the Alexandria Living article:

“It is unique from the other spite houses in that it is only one story tall. The home is a little more than 8-feet wide and has been incorporated into the home next to it. 

The same color as the building to the east — the rear of 131 S. West St., which houses Christ House — it almost blends in. It also looks like a miniature replica of the buildings to its left. Note in the photo below the similar framing above the front door and window.

This alley house is the youngest alley house, built between 1891 and 1895 according to Sanborn Fire Insurance maps.”

The final alley house is a boutique shop on the 200 block of King, right in the middle of the shopping and restaurant district:

More from the Alexandria Living article:

“Only a couple blocks up from the water, it is commonly passed by but not noticed as one of the alley houses. [We can vouch for this.]

This alley house is relatively wide, measuring 11 feet wide (as measured by Old Town Home blog). The house was built around 1812. 

In 1994 the residence, which was located above a then-Birkenstock shoe store, was a total of four rooms, including the bathroom and a kitchen, didn’t have space for a washing machine.”

Definitely puts our small house into perspective!

Categories: Alexandria History, Maps and Miscellany, WolfeStreetProject | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Ghost Signs of OId Town

Alexandria’s history dates back to 1749, and the older, brick buildings in our town, particularly along Union Street, have been repurposed many times over the centuries. This included commercial uses where a little in situ advertising on their walls would have benefited sales of their goods. Although these buildings now generally house restaurants and more tourist-oriented shops, there are faded reminders of their previous lives still visible on their facades – ghost signs.

The most visible is likely this building on the corner of Prince and South Union:

Formerly the home to “ETIMAN FERTILIZER”  and “CERES FERTILIZER,” according to the ghost signs on both the south and east facades,

It was for a few decades the home of The Christmas Attic, but that business, too, has gone the way of Ceres Fertilizer, and is no longer there. We’ll see who moves in next.

Just north on an adjacent building is the former home to BYRNE ORGANIZATION:

We have no idea what this is, but would like to think that it was Alexandria’s Irish mob version of the Bada Bing in the Sopranos. Regardless, it’s now the whiskey room portion of Union Street Public House.

Across the street is Virtue Feed & Grain restaurant and bar:

At some point in the past, this was “WALTER ROBERT’S HAY, GRAIN, FLOUR & FEED.” The building also was home to the actual Virtue Feed & Grain store, and we thought there was a ghost sign for this that inspired the restaurant’s name, but it’s not visible now.

A ghost sign that we didn’t even realize was there until recently, despite walking or running by the place hundreds of times, can be found on the corner of Duke and Fairfax:

This was once a corner store, which, prior to the 1960s and the advent of the supermarket, occupied most corners in Old Town (including both ends of our block of Wolfe Street). The last of them – a deli on the corner of Fairfax and Franklin – succumbed to residential conversion about a decade ago.

As with many of the former corner stores, now residences, you can tell that they once served a commercial purpose – this one based on the store windows. The ghost sign can be found between the two windows on the second floor.


The most recently uncovered is undoubtedly the coolest – the Grape house on the corner of South St. Asaph and Gibbon:

The house was built in 1842, and for our entire residency in Old Town, this wall was painted. However, the house underwent a comprehensive renovation in 2015, including stripping the old paint from this wall, revealing a chewing tobacco advertisement. Wisely, the wall was left exposed. We assume that it actually added a premium to the house price, considering how prominently the Grape tobacco ad was featured in marketing for the house when it was sold.

All of these ghost signs are located in the southeast quadrant. There’s one in the southwest on the top floor of a brick building on King Street:

“Michelbach’s Furniture”

And perhaps a future ghost sign on the side of the new location for Conte’s Bike Shop:

And, lastly, a fake and hokey Oldey Timey sign that the developers of the Watermark condos put up on the Strand:

We have no doubt that this structure (which used to be the sales office for the Potomac River cruise ship The Dandy) was at one time the PHILIP B. HOOE WAREHOUSE for GRAIN, but the oldey timey font is a bit much.

The tables, btw, are overflow outdoor seating for Chadwick’s around the corner (a true Old Town institution). The city has permitted restaurants to spill out into the streets and alleys to accommodate outdoor dining during the current restrictions, which is absolutely awesome. If you haven’t been out to a restaurant since February and are hankering to dine out, come to Old Town!

Categories: Alexandria History, Maps and Miscellany, WolfeStreetProject | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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