Lost Alexandria


Even though Alexandria has kept more of its historical sites than many other places in the country, "progress" has meant the demise of many locations. Urban renewal, residential development, fires, and other natural and human causes have changed the landscape. And it continues--Route 1 (currently, but soon not-to-be-called Jefferson Davis Highway) apartment buildings, West End, Eisenhower Avenue, and more.

Locating the Lost

Last week, at a lecture sponsored by the Alexandria Historical Society, Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria, shared 50 photos--culled from many dozens more--to illustrate some of these changes .

The few listed below do neither the images nor his talk justice. Besides being an entertaining speaker, Lance can really look at a photograph and discern features that are the same or missing, or can date an image based on the smallest detail. Every time I have heard him speak, he picks up on a whole lot in photographs that most of us, or at least I, miss.

Where to Find the Old

Many of the old photos are at the Library of Congress, of course. Others were collected by historian James Goode for his book Capital Losses. When Goode limited that wonderful book to Washington, he donated the Alexandria collection to Local History/Special Collections. Unfortunately, not digitized but I am looking forward to making a trip to see them. 

Another interesting source that Lance used: HistoricAerials.com. In Alexandria's case, he said, aerial photographic images are available from 1949 onward. Access is free, if clunky; paid subscriptions offering more features. But you can definitely search on an address or geographic coordinate to see changes over the years.

A Few Examples of What's Lost

  • Grosvenor House, 414 N. Washington Street, briefly a hospital during the Civil War--1950s, disassembled and auctioned off in pieces
  • Bellevue, a horticulture masterpiece known to have the "finest strawberries in appearance and taste," which became the Marina Towers
  • Lancastrian School, where African American children were taught in a model in which older students helped instruct younger--until Alexandria's retrocession back to Virginia prohibited black education
  • Colross, built in 1789 on the 1100 block of Oronoco, later moved to the Princeton (NJ) Day School

Photos of King Street in the 1950s and 1960s showed an increasingly unattractive area around City Hall. No cute shops and restaurants--think greasy-spoon luncheonettes. Several pawn shops operated thanks to more stringent laws in D.C. People stopped seeing the historic buildings behind those signs, until finally they did and preservation stopped the removal. The city's preservation and archaeological regulations took hold. While not perfect by a long shot, what more might have been lost?

Thanks, Lance!

Lance is retiring as director of the Office of Historic Alexandria at the end of November 2017. Thanks to him for 10 years of sharing knowledge and love of local history here!