- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2000

''My favorite time in the city's past is the Colonial, or early national, period," says Jim Mackay, director of the Lyceum, the local history museum in Alexandria, Va., "but because we're presenting Alexandria's general history, we get to play up any historical period."

If good historical tales fascinate you, Old Town Alexandria is the place to be. Established in 1749 on the west bank of the Potomac River, five miles downstream from Washington, Alexandria is 50 years older than the federal capital. Thanks to preservation projects that began in the 1960s, Old Town an area of six blocks by 13 blocks in the eastern section of the city, along the water is one of the nation's most historic communities. Tucked among its beautiful 18th- and 19th-century homes and shops are many museums dedicated to presenting Alexandria's colorful past. Touring a few of them is a fantastic way to spend a day.

The Lyceum, a beautiful building at 201 S. Washington St., is the perfect place to start. The Greek revival structure, with its stately two-story portico, graces the corner of South Washington and Prince streets in Old Town.

Lyceums, a product of the "public education" movement that swept England and America in the early 1800s, were institutions designed for the continuing education of adults. Alexandria's was erected by two educational organizations: the Lyceum Co. and the Library Co. When the Lyceum opened in 1839, the citizenry flocked there for lectures, debates and scientific demonstrations.

The building's main floor presents the city's story in two rooms filled with artifacts and illustrations. During its 250-year history, Alexandria has served as a major export center and a port of entry for foreign vessels. A French visitor in 1796 called it "the handsomest town in Virginia indeed … among the finest in the United States."

George Washington owned a town house there, and during the War of 1812, Alexandria was captured and plundered by the British after American forces lost the Battle of Bladensburg on Aug. 24, 1814.

"I enjoy military history," Mr. Mackay says, "so one of my favorite items here is a sword that was carried at Bladensburg by a young American lieutenant named Queen; we haven't traced his first name. He was just a little guy in the scheme of things." Long and slender, Queen's blade bears the mark of an Alexandria silversmith.

Mr. Mackay has always worked in the museum field; before his five years at the Lyceum, the enthusiastic 38-year-old historian was employed at Gadsby's Tavern Museum, five blocks away at 134 N. Royal St.

"Sometimes I'll come upstairs to the main floor and talk with the visitors help them have a good time here," he says with a smile. "You know, there's nothing quite like presenting history to the public. If you can tell them a good story, they'll be hanging on every word."

The Lyceum abounds in good stories. A large political cartoon on the wall of the north room is a wonderful snapshot of the same period represented by Lt. Queen's sword one of Alexandria's blackest. Titled "Johnny Bull and the Alexandrians," the cartoon depicts a scene on the wharf. On the left kneel two anguished residents perhaps members of the Common Town Council pleading in vain for their city's protection. To the far right, British soldiers and sailors gleefully carry off barrels of rum and tobacco. In the middle stands a massive figure known as "Johnny Bull" a portly bovine dressed in gentleman's clothes. With his woolly head and horns, this absurd creature represented to Americans the very essence of the haughty English attitude toward their young republic.

"I must have all your flour," says the huge voice cloud above Johnny Bull's head, "all your tobacco, all your provisions, all your ships, all your merchandise … Everything except your Porter and Perry, keep them out of my sight, I've had enough of them already."

Porter and Perry were popular drinks of the period heavy beer and fermented pear juice respectively but in this double entendre, the bloated bull is referring to Brig. Gen. Peter Buell Porter and naval Cmdr. Oliver Hazard Perry, two American officers who had won victories against the British.

One entire corner of the Lyceum is decorated to reproduce the second-floor parlor of the Townsend/Hooe House (circa 1780), the home of a prominent family that still stands nearby on Prince Street. The re-created Georgian-style room includes a felt-top Queen Anne gaming table from the mid-1700s; late 18th-century gaming pieces, cards and playing chits; and a Federal-era shield-back chair dating to 1800.

Only five blocks away from the Lyceum, at 105-107 S. Fairfax St., is the entrancing Stabler Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. The two adjoining three-story Georgian-style buildings date from 1775. The 23-year-old Quaker pharmacist Edward Stabler rented them in 1792 and started his family business, which remained in operation for the next 141 years. Today the ground floor of one of the buildings houses a gift shop, while the other contains the main attraction: a perfectly preserved mid-1800s pharmacy.

Step into the apothecary and step back into time. Running lengthwise down either side of the shop, waist-high counters display such original items as pill rollers, drug mills, medical glassware and record books. Atop one of the counters sit two medicine-grinding mortars and pestles: one for human clientele and the other for their animal counterparts. Behind the counters, shelves that reach to the ceiling hold dozens of large glass containers, their lovely golden labels still proclaiming the pharmaceutical extracts, tinctures and elixirs they once contained.

"We concentrate on the early history of medicine," Executive Director Sarah Becker says. The well-spoken, fortyish Indiana native is the museum's only full-time employee. She is assisted by two part-timers.

"That history has to do with what 18th-century medical practitioners called the four body humors," she says. "They were blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile."

Symptoms in those days often were described in the context of those bodily fluids. At the apothecary, ailing folks could purchase a linctus, a medicine to be licked, or perhaps something to ease their mulligrubs, a pain described as a twisting of the guts. Maybe pharmacist Stabler also dealt in caputpurgias, or cleansers of the head. Fortunately, what then passed for medicine has long since been left behind in the dust of modern science.

Over the years, the apothecary filled orders for people all over Virginia and Maryland and some as far away as Bristol, Tenn. The account books record that George and Martha Washington, James Monroe and George Mason were regular customers. Legend has it that Col. Robert E. Lee was at Stabler's when Lt. J.E.B. Stuart handed him a dispatch ordering him to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., to capture the raiders, led by John Brown, who had taken over the U.S. Arsenal.

"This place is cool," exclaims brown-haired fifth-grader Becky Arden. Becky's dad is Dr. Jonathan Arden, the District's chief medical examiner. Dr. Arden says he and his family including his wife, Dr. Gail Anderson, and two other children were pleasantly surprised when they stumbled upon the apothecary after deciding to explore Alexandria.

"I'd like to work here," Becky says. "I'd be able to make powders and heal people."

Only three blocks from the apothecary is another fabulous place to visit: the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. It's on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center at 105 N. Union St., a huge structure where torpedo shell casings were manufactured during World War II. Alexandria Archaeology is a division of the Office of Historic Alexandria.

"We're a community archaeology program. That sets us apart," says 30-year-old museum educator Jared Bryson. One of only three full-time staff members, Mr. Bryson says the organization thrives with the help of approximately 150 volunteers. He is incredibly passionate about the work they are accomplishing.

"We have an archaeological code that protects the city, and we monitor any kind of ground disruption whatsoever," he says. "Developers have to come to us, and lots of times we'll tell them they need to do some proper archaeology. If it's on city property, we get to do it."

Glass cases on three of the walls display items rescued during a 1997 excavation on nearby North Lee Street. From the buried foundations of a large tavern complex, volunteer archaeologists uncovered pearl-ware dishes imported from England, tobacco pipes, clay marbles, watermelon seeds, tool handles, a cache of coins that includes American pennies (circa 1818 to 1822) and a German taler.

In the center of the museum, three volunteers sit quietly over their work, absorbed in their hands-on archaeology. One cleans a small pile of nails, while another washes crockery shards. Andrew Flora a 40-year-old Census Bureau geographer who first volunteered here in 1976 is copying a design pattern from a piece of prehistoric pottery.

"Here's an interesting little item," he says, holding up a 19th-century wedge that was used in a kiln. "If you look at it very carefully, you can actually see a fingerprint on it. It's a humble artifact, but it puts you in touch with its creator… . I enjoy working here because you get a chance to touch history."

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