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The elegant riverfront estate of George Washington, Mount Vernon (3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., 703/780-2000, www.mountvernon.org, Apr.-Aug. daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Mar. and Sept.-Oct. daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Nov.-Feb. daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m., $15 adults, $14 over age 61, $7 ages 6-11) includes Washington’s 1735 manor, acres of manicured gardens and wooded grounds, the tomb of George Washington and wife Martha, and outbuildings such as a working blacksmith shop, kitchens, and stables.
A new orientation center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center feature a well-scripted film overview of Washington’s years as a soldier in the French and Indian Wars, interactive exhibits, immersive experiences, and 700 artifacts, including the first president’s famous false teeth.
Mount Vernon is one of the prettiest, most inspiring, and most relaxing places to visit in the region. Get there early to avoid the lines for the house, and be mindful of the sometimes snappish women who stand in the hallways to hurry you along. Yes, they own the place, but if this is your once-in-a-lifetime visit, take the time and enjoy this American treasure. The gift shop at Mount Vernon is a personal favorite for special purchases.
Down the road from Mount Vernon lies George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill, recently rebuilt and open to the public to demonstrate a facet of Washington’s business as a manufacturer of his original-recipe rye whiskey.
Gunston Hall (10709 Gunston Rd., Mason Neck, Va., 703/550-9220, www.gunstonhall.org, daily 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day, $9 adults, $8 seniors, $5 ages 6-18), a contemporary of Mount Vernon, was built between 1755 and 1759 by George Mason, father of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, considered by most to be the architect of the Bill of Rights. Mason’s magnificent brick Georgian manor home lies 11 miles from Mount Vernon on the Potomac River, close enough to Washington’s home that the president’s adopted children traveled to Gunston Hall by boat for dance lessons.
The beauty of this magnificent property lies in its solitude; while tour buses and lines and crowds trample all over Mount Vernon’s yards, gardens, and interiors, the 550 acres of manicured and wooded grounds, riverfront gardens, the boxwood allée, colonial terraces, and the magnificent preserved home at Gunston Hall lie still and beautiful, well cared for by the Colonial Dames of America and carrying the spirit of the happy residents who lived there more than 250 years ago.
If you are planning a day of house tours, begin with Mount Vernon in the morning, dine at the Mount Vernon Inn, and head to Woodlawn. If you find yourself in a time crunch, skip the main manor home in favor of the Pope-Leighey House, and then head over to Gunston Hall to complete your day.
Two miles west of Mount Vernon, past George Washington’s Grist Mill and Distillery, lies Woodlawn (9000 Richmond Hwy., Alexandria, Va., 703/780-4000, www.woodlawn1805.org, Thurs.-Mon. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., $8.50 adults, $4 children), an 1805 Federal plantation built as a wedding gift from Washington to his nephew Lawrence Lewis and wife Nelly Custis, Washington’s adopted daughter. The property once covered 2,000 acres and was farmed by more than 90 slaves; their story and the interesting follow-up—that in 1846 the property became a Quaker colony for free laborers and subsequently was subject to numerous attacks by Confederates during the Civil War—is told through tours of the location.
In a locale with numerous 18th- and 19th-century buildings, a home on the grounds of Woodlawn attracts more visitors than the plantation itself: The Pope-Leighey House (9000 Richmond Hwy., Alexandria, Va., 703/780-4000, www.popeleighey1940.org, Thurs.-Mon. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Adults $8.50, Children $4), is the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home open to the public in Virginia. Built originally near Falls Church, Virginia, and moved to the grounds of Woodlawn by the National Trust for Historic Preservation when it was threatened with demolition to make room for an interstate highway, this small-scale treasure—all 1,200 square feet of it—is one of Wright’s Usonian designs, a work of art for the masses containing original furnishings and architectural elements that include casement windows that open to extend the living spaces, a cantilevered car port, an open fireplace, and built-ins.
One of 10 Anglican churches built in Virginia in the 18th century, Christ Church (118 N. Washington St., 703/549-1450, www.historicchristchurch.org, tours Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. 2-4:30 p.m., donation) is a handsome colonial Georgian house of worship, little unchanged since George Washington, and later Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee, worshipped here. It held services attended by President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on the World Day of Prayer for Peace, January 1, 1942. Its cemetery and grounds feature headstones dating to the late 1700s. One ivy-covered hillock marks the mass grave of 15 Confederate prisoners of war.
George Washington celebrated his 66th birthday at Gadsby’s Tavern (134 N. Royal St., 703/746-4242, www.gadsbystavern.com, Apr.-Oct. Sun.-Mon. 1-5 p.m., Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Nov.-Mar. Wed.-Sat. 11-4 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m.), and today, you can do the same; the tavern is both a working restaurant and a museum, although the museum actually contains the rooms where George and Martha Washington danced the night away, and the restaurant is in the former City Hotel.
Gadsby’s was built in 1785 and hosted a number of VIPs in addition to Washington. Notable guests included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Monroe, and James Madison. The museum is a lesson on colonial-era provisioning and dining, with artifacts from the era and exhibits on food, clothing, and social customs. The City Hotel, built in 1799, was considered a veritable skyscraper at the time of its construction. At three stories plus a dormered attic on an English basement, it towered over nearby homes and businesses.
For those with an interest in firefighting, or if you happen to be walking by, drop into Friendship Firehouse (107 S. Alfred St., 703/746-3891, www.historicalexandria.org, Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. 1-4 p.m.), home to the first volunteer fire company in Alexandria, organized in 1774. It features historic equipment on the first floor, including a hand-drawn fire engine, leather water buckets, and early hoses and axes; the second floor contains photos and memorabilia from the late 1800s. The current structure was built in 1855. The firehouse has a small parking lot that can be used to visit another nearby Alexandria City-owned historic site, The Lyceum.
George Washington Masonic Memorial
The George Washington Masonic Memorial (101 Callahan Dr., 703/683-2007, www.gwmemorial.org, Oct.-Mar. Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. noon-4 p.m., Apr.-Sept. Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Sun. noon-4 p.m., first and second floor free, tower exhibits and observation deck $5 over age 11, $20 families of 5 or more) dominates the skyline of Alexandria on Shuter’s Hill, the Freemasons’ temple to member George Washington, charter Worshipful Master of Alexandria Lodge No. 22. The cornerstone of this neoclassical lighthouse-style structure was laid in 1923; it wasn’t completed until 1970, funded entirely by donations from Masons. In addition to serving as a repository for Washington memorabilia and belongings, it houses a 17-foot-tall bronze statue of Washington. An observatory on the ninth floor affords vast views of Old Town, the Potomac River, and nearby Washington.
Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
Visitors to the colonial apothecaries of Fredericksburg or Williamsburg, Virginia, likely have preconceived notions of what they’ll find at Stabler-Leadbeater (105-107 S. Fairfax St., 703/746-3852, www.apothecarymuseum.org, Apr.-Oct. Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun.-Mon. 1-5 p.m., Nov.-Mar. Wed.-Sat. 11 a.m.-4 p.m.), and it does have familiar glass jars of herbs and ointments for colonial poultices, but it spans more than the colonial period: It is a pharmacy that ran from 1792 to 1933, a perfectly preserved memorial to the evolution of pharmaceuticals. When the store closed, the family who owned it shut the doors and walked away. On the first floor is a full-service retail store; the second floor contains a mysterious storage room, complete with bins for hemp and powdered dragon’s blood. One of the most interesting artifacts is Martha Washington’s tab dating to April 1802; she requested medicine weeks before she died.
Torpedo Factory Arts Center
The Torpedo Factory Arts Center (105 N. Union St., 703/838-4565, www.torpedofactory.org, Fri.-Wed. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Thurs. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.) is an original guns-to-butter operation, an arts center opened in 1974 in a World War II-era torpedo factory. At its commissioning, the complex seemed straight out of the Summer of Love, a communal place where artists vied for studio space in the unheated, un-air-conditioned former warehouse. In the early years, artists dripped sweat over their work cooled by industrial-size floor fans, and they bundled up with coats and gloves to ward off the winter’s chill while doing their work. Today, the Torpedo Factor is far more sophisticated, with the appearance of the original factory but with upgraded systems and new flooring, windows, and a spiral staircase. The factory is home to more than 160 professional artists, a place to watch the process of art and purchase paintings, prints, photography, sculpture, and decorative arts.
Alexandria Walking Tours
So much of Alexandria’s charm lies in its history and architecture, best seen on foot and often better understood by an organized tour. A number of outfits run walking tours in the city, with quite a few held at night to capture the colonial ambience and spookiness of the city along darkened alleyways and shadowy cobblestone streets.
Alexandria Colonial Tours (703/519-1749, www.alexcolonialtours.com, Mar.-mid-June and Nov. Fri.-Sat. 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., Sun. 7:30 p.m., mid-June-Sept. Wed.-Thurs. and Sun. 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., Sun. 7:30 p.m., Oct. Fri.-Sat. 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., Sun.-Thurs. 7:30 p.m., $12 adults, $6 ages 7-17) coaxes visitors along with period-costumed guides leading their tours by lantern, telling the history of Alexandria through ghost stories, legends, and tales.
Alexandria’s Footsteps to the Past (703/683-3451, www.footstepsttothepast.com, May-Nov. Sun.-Thurs. 7 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., $10 adults, $5 ages 7-12) hosts historical haunts tours they say even a skeptic will enjoy, full of history and interesting stories of the past, like why a dummy occupies the cupola at 515 North Washington Avenue. All tours leave from the Alexandria Visitors Center (221 King St.) in Ramsay House, the oldest house in Alexandria, built in 1724.
A number of boat tours and cruises leave from Alexandria City Marina, behind the Torpedo Factory on Union Street, including trips to Mount Vernon, tours of the waterfront to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and event cruises like pirate parties and puppy voyages. Potomac River Boat Company (Cameron St. at the water, 703/684-0580, www.potomacriverboatco.com) runs tours from one of its seven vessels as well as a water-taxi service to National Harbor and Georgetown. Sightseeing cruises include a 40-minute trip along the Alexandria waterfront on the Admiral Tilp, a double-decker launch that plies the waters of the Potomac along the city, motoring past sights like the gardens of Founders Park, the homes of Admiral’s Row, and the tiny historic white clapboard lighthouse at Jones Point.
© Patricia Nevins Kime from Moon Washington DC, 1st Edition