Posts Tagged With: Old Town

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

Ice, Ice, Baby

That’s right – Vanilla Ice knew his Old Town ice houses. There are exactly two ice ice houses in Alexandria, down from dozens across the city at the turn of the 20th century.

Neither are used for storing and selling ice anymore, but this summer, according to Alexandria Living Magazine, a company called Goodie’s Frozen Custard will be moving into the more iconic of Old Town’s two extant ice houses. After 30 years as a plumbing supply shop, and then being abandoned for more than a decade, that ice house will soon host a tenant worthy of the space.

Between 1900 and 1930, ice houses in Alexandria distributed hundreds of thousands of tons of ice annually to the city’s businesses and residents. The increased availability of electricity throughout the city after this period rendered the ice houses obsolete. Most were demo’d to allow the construction of new structures. But two remain standing, albeit used for other purposes.

The more well-known of the two (and the one for which its function is unambiguously broadcast), is located in the southwest quadrant, on the 200 block of Commerce Street (and visible from King):

When one of us was growing up, that ice house was abandoned, and painted a uniform, faded light blue. The “ICE” was visible only as relief on the facade. (BTW, we continue to look for a serigraph of the ice house in this condition by late, local Torpedo Factory artist Clay Huffman, but the search has been fruitless.) About 5 years ago, someone bought ICE house, began restoring it, and applied the new, improved paint scheme. This is the future home of the frozen custard purveyor, fittingly enough.

The other remaining ice house structure lies on the 100 block of South Lee Street:

We run or walk by this place multiple times a week, and only recently realized that it was an ice house. This was the home of the Mutual Ice Company from 1900 to 1937, when it closed due to widespread adoption of electricity for refrigerators and freezers. It’s now home to an architectural firm.

As with the first “ICE” house, the structure on Lee features a shelf on which to place ice blocks during a transaction:

And a pretty impressive, heavy wood insulated door to the ice freezer:

These more recent ice houses have nothing on the grand daddy of them all in Old Town, though – the 18th-century Gatsby’s Tavern ice well. (All of the quoted information below is verbatim from the city’s historical information site here.)

“The Alexandria Common Council granted Wise permission to build an icehouse underneath the corner of Royal and Cameron Streets in 1793 as part of his construction. For the previous four years, Wise had leased the Alexandria Inn and Coffee House at 201 N. Fairfax Street, which included an on-site icehouse. Perhaps this convenience in his earlier ventures convinced Wise of the importance to the hospitality industry of having a regular supply of ice. Wise saw into the future by including this important feature in his designs for Alexandria’s five-star hotel of the 18th century.”

Inscription on the bluestone at the center of the circle on the corner above:

“Ice harvesting was an expensive and time-consuming process. It was cut from the frozen Potomac River in the winter and hauled by cart to the City Tavern for storage.  Once in the well, the ice was formed into a solid mound and covered with straw to preserve it for use through the summer months.  Preserving ice was an on-going challenge in the late 18th century and an expensive venture. Therefore, ice was generally reserved for wealthy estate owners. George Washington records in his journals the trials and tribulations of trying to preserve ice. In Alexandria, many homes had interior ice pits to store small quantities of ice. Those lucky enough to have access to ice used it to chill beverages, preserve perishable foods, and even make a new popular dessert of the day: ice cream. This availability of ice at Gadsby’s Tavern helped to distinguish the establishment as one of the finest of its kind in the 18th century.”

Linked directly to the Tavern basement by a brick-walled and vaulted tunnel, the ice well was also accessed by the tavern staff through a small hatch at street level. The City Tavern’s well is much larger than most urban residential ice wells, measuring over 17 feet in diameter and over 11 feet deep at the lowest excavation point. The well could store as much as 68 tons of ice, enough to supply the tavern and even the citizens of Alexandria. In 1805, when John Gadsby was leasing the tavern from John Wise, Gadsby advertised the sale of ice from the well, “ICE FOR SALE, Persons may be supplied with ice, at eight cents per pound on application to John Gadsby.”

A view into the ice well:

“The ice well is an important and rare example of a commercial well in an urban environment.  Most ice wells have been lost to “progress” as they have succumbed to office buildings, parking lots, and housing.  Examples still exist at Monticello, Montpelier, and Mount Vernon, but these were created for private and not commercial use.  Gadsby’s ice well tells the larger story of commerce and the evolution of hospitality.  It is a reminder to modern day travelers and residents of something we take for granted today – a ready supply of ice.”

Stay cool, Old Town.

Categories: Alexandria History, Maps and Miscellany, WolfeStreetProject | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Adieu, Appomattox

A Saturday morning quiz: spot the difference between these two pictures

We took the picture on the top a few weeks ago; we took the one on the bottom this past Tuesday.

In light of the ongoing protests throughout the country, the city worked with the United Daughters of the Confederacy on Tuesday morning to remove the Appomattox statue from its plinth at the intersection of Washington and Prince Streets. The city had voted several years ago to remove the statue, but were prevented from acting on this by a state law that reserved decisions on Confederate war memorials at the state level. The new legislature that was voted into Richmond during last year’s mid-term elections reversed this policy, enabling municipalities to take the actions they saw fit. In the case of Appomattox, this required working with the monument’s owner, since the statue and plinth are not owned by the city. (The circular patch in the intersection also may be owned by the UDC – we’ve heard this, but haven’t been able to verify it. The city’s GIS parcel viewer does show a little circle at this intersection, while there is none in the other intersections, but there’s not a parcel designation for the circle.)

We previously posted on Alexandria’s Appomattox monument in 2017 after the white supremacist jackassery in Charlottesville.

From this article in the Alexandria Gazette: “Although City Council voted unanimously in 2016 to move the statue to another location, prevailing law at the time required approval from the General Assembly for the relocation of the Appomattox Statue along with other war memorials throughout the state. A bill passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) earlier this year removed those protections, giving authority over memorials to local jurisdictions. That law goes into effect July 1. ‘We had already coordinated with the UDC and scheduled a date for removal in July,” [Alexandria City Mayor] Wilson said. “They approached the city last night with a request to remove the statue early. That is probably a testament to the moment we are in right now.'”

A closer look:

There was earlier consideration to move Appomattox to the city’s Lyceum museum located on the southwest corner. That no longer appears to be the case and it’s unclear where the statue (and plinth, we assume) will be relocated.

A plaque addressing Appomattox near the Lyceum:

Adieu, Appomattox.

Categories: Alexandria History, Maps and Miscellany, WolfeStreetProject | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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