The Athenaeum in Old Town Alexandria

 Athenaeum, corner of Prince and Lee Streets, Alexandria.

Athenaeum, corner of Prince and Lee Streets, Alexandria.

This lovely building on the corner of Prince and Lee Streets in Alexandria hosts art exhibitions, musical performances, and lectures (including one by me on December 7).

 Meredith barber spent part of her internship at the Athenaeum researching the building's history.

Meredith barber spent part of her internship at the Athenaeum researching the building's history.

But it has been many other things. Meredith Barber,  a student at William & Mary and Athenaeum intern, explained the building's past in a lecture last night.

"One of the handsomest in town"

When the building was constructed in the early 1850s as a branch of the Bank of the Old Dominion, the Alexandria Gazette regularly reported on the progress of the construction. "Handsome," Barber pointed out, was a frequent adjective used. 

During this era of Free Banking (1837-1862), unchartered banks flourished across the country. While Virginia still required banks to have a state charter to operate, it did allow branches for the first time. Periodic booms and busts occurred, but the bank (and its depositors) were not as flummoxed by the Panic of 1857. 

As the Union Army came in, a cashier took the bank's assets from its imposing safe, placed them in a wagon, and drove out of town to bury them in a cemetery--or so the story goes. Whatever the specifics, Barber pointed out that the bank was the only one in Virginia to be able to pay off depositors after the war.

Commissary of Subsistence

How to feed and tend to the thousands of Union soldiers and freedpeople coming into Alexandria? That fell to the Commissary of Subsistence, which used the building during the war.

On November 12, 1862, Julia Wilbur wrote in her diary:

Went to Commissary’s. Find that my rations wd be.

3/4 lb. pork, or 1 ¼ lbs. beef

1 lb. 6 oz. flour or 1 lb. bread

1½ oz. rice, — ½ gill beans

2 oz. sugar — 1½ oz. Coffee

¾ in. of candle, cake of soap 1 in. square.

Molasses & potatoes are extra rations.

Wilbur never mentioned (that I have yet seen) the officer in charge, Lt. Col. George Bell, but she did recount run-ins with two commissary agents whom she suspected as very unsavory characters.

 During the Civil War, the "Old Dominion Bank" sign still was evident.

During the Civil War, the "Old Dominion Bank" sign still was evident.

Bank to Warehouse to Church

After the war, according to Barber, the building lay vacant for about five years. Another bank, the Citizens National Bank, used it until 1907, when Leadbetter & Sons used it for a wholesale pharmacy business. It then became the Free Methodist Church.

Fine Arts

In 1964, the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association restored the building as a museum and performance space. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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