- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 30, 2005

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum in Old Town Alexandria has served as a tavern for most of its 220 years and still does. However, though eating traditional American cuisine is a big draw, Gadsby’s is also a destination for school classes, families and tourists who want to learn about local and national history.

“In the 18th century, the tavern played a key role. It was where politics were discussed and news was gathered,” says Kirsten Doescher, special programs coordinator at Gadsby’s. “George Washington was here, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison.”

Gadsby’s consists of two connected buildings. One, finished in 1785, houses a museum. The other structure, completed in 1792, is part restaurant, part rentable banquet hall and part museum. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the buildings provided lodging.

The museum also is home to frequent special events, such as Children’s Days, which will take place 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 9 through 11.

Children’s Days will give youngsters a chance to guess about the function of various tavern artifacts, meet a re-enactor portraying a pirate, listen to old-timey stories, dress up in 18th-century clothes and play Colonial games. These games will include marbles, a board game called Fox and Geese, cap and ball, and tops. All docents and museum staff will be dressed in period costumes.

The cost is $3 per person, and reservations are required.

“Kids are always amazed at the toys. They can’t believe that kids had such few, simple toys, like dolls made of corn husks,” Ms. Doescher says. “There was no Game Boy, no Internet.”

The museum, named after Englishman John Gadsby, who ran the tavern and hotel from 1796 to 1808, also offers daily tours from April through October. (Winter hours are more limited.) The tours start in the older, three-story museum building. The first floor has two dining rooms. The larger one was for everyday guests, and the smaller was for intimate parties and special occasions.

“A tavern wasn’t suitable for a proper lady. There was gaming going on and heavy drinking, and people talked politics and business,” Ms. Doescher says. “But a man could rent this smaller dining room to wine and dine his wife.”

The guests were unlikely to pay for the meal or the rental of the room with money, Ms. Doescher says.

“Typically, guests would have a line of credit based on what they thought their crops would bring in,” she says, “but if they had a bad year, they would be heavily in debt, which is what happened to Thomas Jefferson.”

Another frequent guest, George Washington, fared better businesswise, she says, and celebrated his last couple of birthdays with elaborate balls in the Gadsby’s banquet hall on the second floor.

“When we talk about Washington, we also discuss transportation, the fact that it took him a whole day to travel from Mount Vernon to Alexandria,” she says. “Not 30 minutes.”

Many of the larger rooms, including the banquet hall on the second floor, were sparsely furnished in Washington’s day — and still are — because they served a lot of different purposes, Ms. Doescher says.

“There was entertainment, like jugglers and sword-swallowers, but it was also where doctors would see patients,” she says. “There were so few doctors, they would travel from town to town and would often see patients at the local tavern.”

Gadsby’s also offered lodging for weary travelers. It offered both fancy and very simple rooms. On the top floor, the rooms are small and stuffy, and guests slept on cots and mattresses on the floor, sharing the room, maybe even a bed, with four to six other guests, Ms. Doescher says.

The rooms were used only by men, she says. Women either didn’t travel, or they stayed with friends or relatives.

“We talk to children about the difference between staying at a hotel today and back then,” she says. “They can’t imagine staying in a room with complete strangers.”

These simple rooms also had no fireplace for warmth in the winter and only small windows to allow for airflow in the summer.

The nicer hotel rooms had four-post beds, carpet, desks and chairs. None of them, however, had running water — a later convenience. A “necessary” was located outside, in the back.

Besides tavern, hotel, doctor’s office, and entertainment and ball venue, Gadsby’s also served briefly as the seat of the state government during the Civil War.

“A lot happened under this roof,” Ms. Doescher says. “The tavern really was the social center of the city.”

When you go:

Location: Gadsby’s Tavern Museum is at 134 N. Royal St. in Alexandria.

Directions: Take the George Washington Parkway south from the District into Alexandria. The parkway becomes Washington Street. Go about a mile and turn left on Cameron Street. Go three blocks and turn right on North Royal Street. Gadsby’s Tavern Museum is on the right, next to Gadsby’s Tavern restaurant.

Hours: From April through October, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday through Monday; from November through March, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday. The museum is closed on all major holidays. The 30-minute tours start 15 minutes before and after the hour.

Parking: Metered parking is available on North Royal Street.

Admission: $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 11 through 17, and free for children 10 and younger who are accompanied by a paying adult.

Information: 703/838-4242 or www.gadsbystavern.org.


The museum is Metro accessible. Go to King Street on the Yellow and Blue lines. The walk to the tavern from the Metro is about 1 miles. For information on buses from the King Street stop to the tavern, call 703/370-3274.

Upcoming family events include Gadsby’s Tavern Museum Children’s Days from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 9 through 11. The Aug. 9 event will feature activities for children ages 3 to 6; Aug. 10 is open to children in kindergarten through third grade; and Aug. 11 is open to children in fourth grade and above. Activities will include storytelling, dressing in 18th-century clothes, playing Colonial games, meeting a pirate and guessing the use of different tavern artifacts. Fee: $3 per person.

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