- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Step back in time in a place where history comes alive. Walk the streets where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee grew up and George Washington had a town home. Visit Market Square and its Saturday Farmers Market.

Welcome to Alexandria, "The Fun Side of the Potomac," as the Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association calls it.

Incorporated in 1749 and named after Scotsman John Alexander, the city was a hub of merchant trade between England and the Colonies. Forty years later, the city was ceded by Virginia to become part of the capital city. It remained part of the District of Columbia until 1847.

Alexandria became a thriving seaport with tobacco its leading export because of its location on the Potomac River. Today, the river is dotted with sailboats, and Alexandria's appeal is its historic charm. Part of this charm is in the city's 18th- and 19th-century buildings.

Visitors can discover historic buildings, such as Carlyle House (circa-1753), Gadsby's Tavern (circa 1770 and 1792), the Lee-Fendall House (circa 1785) and many privately owned historic homes. Just down the road from Alexandria is George Washington's home, Mount Vernon.

Alexandria has numerous public buildings that are noteworthy because of their architectural styles and their historic significance.

Carlyle House

A good place to start a tour is Carlyle House. This Georgian Palladian home is made of stone and was built with the labor of servants and slaves. It was owned by Scotsman John Carlyle, a town trustee, merchant and member of the Virginia gentry. He was married to Sarah Fairfax, daughter of Lord Fairfax. The couple had seven children only two of whom survived and wife Sarah died in childbirth.

In 1780, when Mr. Carlyle died, an inventory was taken of the home and its contents.

"He was a clotheshorse," says Caroline Neely, curator of education for Carlyle House. "He played an important role in bringing fashion to the Colonies."

Mr. Carlyle's wardrobe included 54 jackets and 26 shirts. A display of authentic 18th-century clothing may make visitors glad they don't have to get laced into corsets or squeeze their feet into shoes that don't have a right or left.

The house itself is furnished as it would have been during the 18th century. A parlor is set up for an evening of gaming with cards and backgammon. A bench in front of the fireplace provides a place to read letters aloud. The punch bowl would contain a potent concoction of 95 percent liquor and 5 percent fruit juice.

The house was spared demolition during the 1960s because of its historical significance in 1755, five Colonial governors met with Gen. Edward Braddock, commander in chief of his majesty's forces in North America, at Carlyle House. This meeting was convened to discuss taxation of the Colonies.

"Some of the seeds of the Revolution were set in this room," Ms. Neely explains.

Gadsby's Tavern

Across Market Square, Gadsby's Tavern provided food, drink and bed. One of the tavern's two buildings was built in 1770 in the Georgian style; the other was built in the Federal style in 1792.

The tavern is now a museum owned by the city of Alexandria; it was restored and reopened for the 1976 bicentennial celebration. It also operates a dining room that serves Colonial fare for lunch and dinner.

"Mary Hawkins ran the tavern with the help of her children and her three slaves," says Emily McDonough, education aide at Gadsby's museum.

The Tack Room provided a place to eat, drink and socialize. Food was set up buffet style, and dishes were a mismatch as "it could get rowdy," Ms. McDonough explains.

For the more genteel, a private dining room offered a chance to negotiate the choice of meal as well as service on china dishes. Ms. McDonough adds that George Washington would come to Gadsby's to eat when he was staying at his town home.

Lee-Fendall House

Washington also dined at the Lee-Fendall House when he was in town. This early Victorian house was built on land owned by Gen. "Light Horse" Harry Lee, father of the Confederate general. Robert E. Lee's boyhood home, just down the street, was sold recently to a private owner.

It was at the Lee-Fendall House that Gen. Harry Lee wrote the farewell address from Alexandrians to George Washington when he left to become president.

Mount Vernon

Going to the District meant leaving Mount Vernon, the first president's estate. This popular historic site is open every day of the year, and on Washington's birthday, admission is free. Touring Mount Vernon provides an opportunity to see a grand estate and partake of views of the Potomac only accessible from the estate.

Youngsters will enjoy the animals that make Mount Vernon home. Magnolia represents the stallion the first president owned. An American mammoth jockstock donkey tells the story of mule breeding at Mount Vernon. Shire horses, Hog Island sheep, red Devon oxen, turkeys, chickens, pigs and piglets add to the plantation's animal kingdom and provide youngsters with a firsthand look.

Touring the mansion on a special occasion may provide a peek at the first president as portrayed by William Sommerfield. This is a real treat, as Mr. Sommerfield looks the part and is extremely knowledgeable about the man he portrays.

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