- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002

Revolutionary War hero Light-Horse Harry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, sold a plot of land in Alexandria to his cousin, Philip Richard Fendall, in the late 18th century. Fendall, an affluent lawyer from Charles County, constructed a timber-frame house on that corner lot, designing it in a style similar to plantation houses.

That was in 1785, long before the seaport became known as "Old Town" Alexandria, home to tony restaurants, hair salons and antique shops, and a magnet for tourists and a giant Target shopping center just around the corner.

"This house was really in the middle of nowhere when it was built," says Kristin L. Miller, executive director of this small bit of history, called the Lee-Fendall House Museum. "It shows you how Alexandria has grown."

Thirty-seven members of the Lee family lived in the house, staying until 1903. After the last Lee left, a local haberdasher and liquor purveyor moved in, staying for 31 years. The house then passed to labor leader John L. Lewis, who lived there until his death in 1969.

Now maintained by the Virginia Trust for Historic Preservation and a core of dedicated volunteers, the Lee-Fendall House has been lovingly restored to its Victorian elegance, interpreted as a Lee family home of the 1850-1870 period.

Visitors to the home will see how families lived during that time before, during and after the Civil War within the context of the history of Alexandria, the region and the nation. It's a valuable experience for children, especially those interested in history, Ms. Miller says.

"A visit offers an opportunity to develop an appreciation for what children from earlier times wore, what they ate, how they played, the special skills they had, and why they behaved as they did," she says.

A peek into the formal parlor of the Lee-Fendall House, for example, conjures life before the telephone and Internet. The formal parlor, Ms. Miller says, was the setting for weddings, christenings and funerals. On predesignated days of the week, the lady of the house would receive visitors in her parlor.

"These guests would come and spend 20 to 30 minutes catching up on the news of the day," Ms. Miller says. "On alternate days, the lady of the house would call upon others."

George Washington was a frequent guest of the Fendalls, visiting some 45 times.

"Fendall was involved in lots of business ventures with Washington," Ms. Miller says. "Not only were they friends, but business associates as well."

The upstairs region of the house, with its master bedroom and children's room, interprets family living space.

Interestingly, "bedrooms back then were semipublic spaces," Ms. Miller says. "It wasn't uncommon to receive guests in your bedroom and it was not even uncommon for travelers to share a room with you."

Next door, the children's room is designed as a young girls' bedroom.

"We know many grew up here," Ms. Miller says. "All of the girls in the house would share a room, regardless of the number of rooms in the house."

A glass case holds, arguably, some of the museum home's most curious objects: a collection of mourning jewelry, including brooches and earrings. Commonly worn by both women and men, mourning jewelry was pieces of wearable art containing the hair of the deceased.

"It really was a way to remember their loved ones," Ms. Miller says.

The last stop on the tour is a stroll through the lovely restored garden, one of the largest private sanctuaries of its kind in Alexandria. The gate is left open during the day, actually, so people can wander in off the street to enjoy it, Ms. Miller says.

Some of the museum's special programs invite children right into the garden and the house itself to learn about distinct periods in American history. "A Day in 1863," for example, invites children to dress in period clothing, learn about the Civil War and play period games.

There are Mother's Day and Father's Day tours, Easter egg hunts and a Victorian Valentine event all designed to foster interest in the history and culture of Alexandria and help children experience family life of an earlier day.

"Children are encouraged to compare and contrast these experiences with those of their lives today," Ms. Miller says. "By understanding what their own role might have been, it is our hope that our young visitors will develop a personal interest in history and develop the skills to investigate the lessons offered by the past."


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