- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

Alexandria’s long history — from Colonial America to the Civil War, when it was a transportation center, to contemporary times as relative of the nation’s capital — is chronicled through art and artifacts at the Lyceum, Alexandria’s History Museum.

At the Lyceum, visitors find that the story of Alexandria parallels the evolution of America and of the District, says Jim Mackay, the museum’s director.

“It took a while for D.C. to overtake Alexandria,” Mr. Mackay says. “Eventually, D.C. became the big kid on the block. Alexandria has maintained its own identity, but we are closely linked to the history of the District. We grew together.”

The history timeline at the Lyceum stretches back thousands of years to American Indian inhabitants. There are maps showing which people lived in the area that is now Northern Virginia, as well as arrowheads — some dating back thousands of years — found in the vicinity. There also are reproductions of bows, arrows, fishhooks and other tools of daily life.

Moving forward hundreds of years, another large portion of the Lyceum is dedicated to Alexandria’s role as an important 18th- and 19th-century seaport.

Visitors can see example of 18th-century Georgian architecture, smell barrels of drying tobacco (a large export from the area) and get a better understanding of the British invasion of 1814 through artifacts such as an 1,800-pound cannon.

Other key learning opportunities at the Lyceum:

• Alexandria’s presidential history. George Washington was once a resident here, as was Gerald Ford. Alexandria also has been a stop for many presidents. There are photos at the museum of Calvin Coolidge laying the cornerstone for the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in 1923, as well as Harry Truman attending a football game during the city’s bicentennial celebration in 1949.

• Alexandria’s Civil War history. The Lyceum chronicles May 24, 1861, when 13,000 federal troops crossed the Potomac and occupied strategic points in Northern Virginia. Because of Alexandria’s location as a port city and railroad center and its proximity to the District, the city was an important center for wartime operations.

• Alexandria’s railroad history. President Lincoln’s funeral car was constructed here to carry him to Illinois for his funeral. From the Reconstruction to the Depression, Alexandria continued to be an important rail hub. That story is told through photos and rail memorabilia.

Maps show how rail stations and trolley cars contributed to growth of Washington’s Virginia suburbs in the years before World War II. Potomac Yards was a vital interchange for 75 years.

• Alexandria’s civil rights history. Photos document the 1939 sit-in by five black residents at a library on Queen Street. This led to the city’s first blacks-only library opening on South Washington Street the next year. Today, the building houses the Black History Resource Center.

• Alexandria’s artistic history. A separate gallery houses “An Alexandria Legacy: The Howard W. Smith Jr. Silver Collection.” This collection of hundreds of pieces of 18th- and 19th-century silver flatware and serving ware was created by artisans in Alexandria. The collection will be on display through late March.

The Lyceum’s building has its own rich history. The building opened in 1839 as a community center and library. It was seized by the Union Army for use as a hospital during the Civil War. It was later a private residence and an office building.

The building fell into disrepair and was set to be demolished in the 1960s but was purchased by the city of Alexandria, which refurbished it and restored it practically to its original purpose — as a cultural and educational center.

The Lyceum is a good place for children to enrich their Virginia history studies in preparation for Standards of Learning tests, Mr. Mackay says. School groups often schedule tours, and the museum offers a scavenger hunt and other activities to enhance learning. For self-guided family tours, several handouts, including quizzes, coloring sheets and other fun facts, are located throughout the museum.

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