- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2000

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum in Old Town Alexandria looks nothing like a time machine, given its unassuming brick exterior and workaday wooden doors.

Yet the museum, one of the few remaining Colonial taverns in the country, transports visitors back to 18th-century Virginia through period displays, a wealth of special programs and a fully functioning Colonial restaurant.

Located just off the commercially clogged King Street corridor on North Royal Street, the museum consists of a former tavern and city hotel, plus the aforementioned eatery.

Paul D. Garver, assistant director of the museum, says the two buildings give visitors a candid glimpse at our country’s humble beginnings it’s a setting that was visited by the country’s first five presidents.

“It’s a microcosm for [the] community of the day,” Mr. Garver says of the city-owned and operated museum. “It offers people a very real historical experience. They’re living the past.”

The museum includes a series of “interpretive scenarios,” vignettes of Colonial life formed mostly by authentic period furniture and housewares.

It also offers educational programs such as evening lantern tours, costume symposiums and English country dancing classes. Next month, visitors will be able to luxuriate in an authentic 18th-century tea service.

“Not only are we a museum, but we have all these educational programs so people can be entertained while learning about the past,” says Mr. Garver, one of two full-time museum staffers.

A budget of about $200,000 a year keeps the museum operational. Donations of about $100,000 replenish the coffers each year.

The museum earned accreditation again last month from the D.C.-based American Association of Museums for its painstaking restoration and educational outreach work. The accrediting organization’s visiting committee cited the museum’s quality staffers, educational programs and growth since its initial, successful accreditation review in 1990.

Museum curators use period paintings, letters and newspaper accounts to infuse their vignettes with as many knowing details as space will permit. The museum’s permanent collection includes more than 1,300 items.

• • •

British tavern owner John Gadsby, who lived in Decatur House in the District, did his share for history when he recorded a room-by-room inventory of his workplace.

His tavern was built in 1770. The adjacent city hotel building followed in 1792.

Only 22 years may separate them, but a Revolutionary War made that time gap seem like a century. Alexandria prospered in the wake of the American Revolution, and its citizens found themselves with enough money to splurge on more leisure items than ever before.

The changes are plain to see when one takes the Gadsby’s Tavern tour.

“We can show two time periods side by side,” Mr. Garver says. “There’s a lot of change between the two.”

During the early period, chiefly men dropped by the tavern. Women were relegated to more housebound duties, Mr. Garver says, as was the manner of the time.

The men frequenting the tavern for overnight stays didn’t have it easy, however.

“There wasn’t an expectation of privacy. You paid for a place to sleep and clean sheets. It didn’t mean your own room or your own bed,” he says.

Taverns served as communication hubs in those days, centers where business deals were struck and political conversations among heavyweight politicians were stoked.

“This is where people got things done,” Mr. Garver says.

Prominent men including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette passed through its doors.

The tavern’s assembly room, the largest public room in Alexandria in its time, features a large empty arena where banquets, meetings, even circus acts were displayed.

Its tap room, which seems cramped by modern standards, would teem with men eating and smoking the hours away. An adjacent private dining room could be used by patrons for an extra fee if they preferred, but it afforded a constricted, if isolated, space.

The city hotel portion of the museum reveals a community flush with cash and willing to spend it. Accommodations increased substantially in size and in grandeur for those fortunate enough to afford them, Mr. Garver says.

Women, too, began to travel and socialize in public more than ever.

The hotel’s spacious assembly room, perhaps the most obvious example of the locals’ newfound wealth, features Prussian blue walls, maroon curtains and 60 brass coat hooks.

The hotel operated well into the 19th century but didn’t fare well after the Civil War. The space eventually gave way to retail shops before its decaying foundations persuaded its owners in 1917 to tear it down. American Legion Post 24, recognizing the buildings’ historical impact, bought them and the land on which they sat and began the restoration effort.

• • •

In 1972, the post gave the land and buildings to Alexandria. The city restored and reopened them for the Bicentennial celebration in 1976, the same year the restaurant portion opened.

The restaurant runs independently of the museum, yet the two are inextricably linked, says restaurant manager Gene Moss.

The two entities offer discounts for each other’s services, Mr. Moss says, and customers often sample one, then saunter over to the other.

“We’re strictly regulated by them, which is a good thing,” he says of the restaurant’s neighbor, which helps authenticate the server’s Colonial garb and the rustic menu offerings. “It helps keep us accurate.”

Servers deliver authentic period fare such as duck and oven-scarred chicken, plus samplings of Sally Lunn bread, an English tea bread.

Rajeev Kurichh, a managing member of the restaurant, says the restaurant caters primarily to the tourist bus crowds. Its menu comes in 10 languages.

He says he would like to embrace local patrons more in the coming months. To do that, he is instituting twice-a-week public tables, dinners akin to those offered in the late 1700s, in which guests eat family style.

Mr. Garver says the museum’s generous rooms lend each floor a sense of time and place that other, more clogged museums cannot match.

“Having worked in museums most of my adult life, I never worked in a place that had as much character [as Gadsby’s Tavern],” he says.

“So much of what you see is open space,” he says. “Your imagination gets involved. That’s why it’s a fun place to work.”

WHAT: Young Ladies’ 18th-Century Tea, featuring historical interpreters and deportment demonstrations

WHERE: Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, 134 N. Royal St., Alexandria

WHEN: Jan. 21, 3 to 5 p.m.

TICKETS: $25; advance reservations required

PHONE: 703/838-4242

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide