ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- On weeknights in midwinter, when the hearts of other cities are dark and lifeless, people are strolling down the brick sidewalks of King Street in Alexandria.
Many upscale stores are open on the charming street. And restaurants are bustling, many with couples dining at candle-lit tables. In addition to more than a dozen small museums and historic sites, it claims 50 antique and fine arts galleries, 300 specialty shops and 200 restaurants.
Alexandria is celebrating its 250th anniversary throughout 1999. This month, it is also celebrating George Washington's birthday.
Alexandria claims Washington, who lived in nearby Mount Vernon, as one of its own. It celebrates our first president's birthday every year, but more events are planned in 1999, the 200th anniversary of Washington's death.
If you visit, forget that Alexandria is almost in the shadow of Washington, D.C. Just pretend Washington doesn't exist and enjoy exploring Alexandria. If you try to do both cities in one trip, as many people do, you won't be able to do justice to either.
A pleasant surprise
A pleasant surprise is that the heart of Alexandria didn't get swallowed up by the 20th century sprawl of the Washington metropolitan area. A large part of the city's charm is you might not be able to tell which brick buildings are new and which are old. Even places like the Holiday Inn and McDonald's fit neatly into the architecture of center-city, called Old Town.
Several national associations are headquartered in Alexandria, where riverfront townhouses cost up to $1 million, and many of Alexandria's attractions are within walking distance of each other. But anyone who just walks around Old Town near the river won't appreciate that Alexandria is much larger than it looks, with about 119,500 residents.
Two favored tourist attractions are at opposite ends of King Street: the Torpedo Factory Art Center along the Potomac River and the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.
Despite Alexandria's Colonial and Civil War history, the Torpedo Factory is the city's most popular attraction. It's a classic case of swords being turned into plowshares. Torpedoes were made in the building from World War I through World War II. Now up to 800,000 visitors a year come to admire and purchase art created in the place.
The art center, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, helped the city grow down to the waterfront, said Taylor C. Wells, director of the Torpedo Factory Artists' Association.
He said 160 artists work in 83 studios. The center also has five galleries, including the Art League School's gallery, which has different juried shows every month.
It's a wonderful place with three mazelike levels full of traditional and abstract art studios from paintings, sculpture and photography to pottery, jewelry and even clothing. You easily can spend several hours exploring the place and watching artists at work.
Wells said the Torpedo Factory draws an average of 2,000 people a day. "We get 5,000 to 6,000 a day on weekends. This building will just swallow those people up."
The hilltop memorial to Washington, who was a Freemason, also exudes a grand scale. The structure was designed to emulate the lighthouse that once stood in the harbor at Alexandria, Egypt one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Alexandria's tribute to Washington is more like the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials across the river than the obelisk Washington Monument. A 17-foot-tall statue of Washington is on the main floor of the templelike building, which can be visited for free.
In addition to admiring the sculpture of Washington, you can take a free one-hour tour through the building. It includes a Washington museum and a baffling introduction into Freemasonry, complete with rooms re-creating ancient temples. One room has a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the Ten Commandments in biblical times.
You may not notice as you ascend 300 feet to the observation level near the top of the tower, but the memorial's two elevators move laterally as well as vertically. They are 48 feet apart on the first floor, only 9 feet apart at the observation level.
Virginia's Alexandria was named not for the city in Egypt, but for John Alexander, a Scotsman who in 1669 purchased the land where the city now stands.
Founded in 1749, Alexandria was one of the major seaports of the American Colonies. Initially, its major export was tobacco. A stain on its history is that one of its major imports was slaves. During the second quarter of the 19th century, Alexandria had the dubious distinction of being headquarters of the largest slave trading business in the United States.
Many guided and self-guided walking tours are available, including tours focusing on black history and Civil War history.
Much of Alexandria's charm is "the authenticity of the streetscape," said Sarah Becker, director of Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, a pharmacy museum called Alexandria's oldest mercantile establishment. "We probably have more authentic buildings than almost anywhere, even Williamsburg. We have an enormous collection of 18th- and early 19th-century houses. For me to say the apothecary dates to 1775 is kind of ho-hum because so many buildings are much older."
Lull in winter
A visitor in winter cannot appreciate how busy Alexander becomes at the height of the tourist season. Visitation picks up in April and continues through June, said Laura Overstreet, deputy director of the Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association. It drops off during the hot season of July and August, then resumes in autumn.
Warm-weather visitors can enjoy sightseeing and dinner cruises on the Potomac. They can take boats to Mount Vernon or Georgetown in Washington. Others rent bicycles and pedal to Mount Vernon. Kayaks, canoes and paddleboats also can be rented on the Alexandria waterfront.
Because of Alexandria's location, many people pass through as they travel between Washington and Mount Vernon. It is about six miles from Washington and eight miles from Mount Vernon.
Washington was born in 1732 at Pope's Creek Plantation, downstream on the Potomac, and raised near Fredericksburg. Yet Alexandria calls itself his hometown.
Washington acquired Mount Vernon in 1754, when he was only 22, and lived there at various times until his death in 1799.
He also had a house in Alexandria. Reconstructed, it is not open to the public, but you can see a bust of Washington looking out a front window. Washington's workers sold fish caught in the Potomac and produce raised at Mount Vernon in Alexandria's farmers market, which still operates every Saturday. It is called the nation's oldest continuously operating farmers market.
Washington had his own pew in Alexandria's Christ Church, which is still active but open to visitors.
Even when Washington was still alive, his birthday was celebrated with Birth Night Balls in Alexandria. On his last birthday in February 1799, he danced in Gadsby's Tavern, now a museum.
For a calendar of 250th anniversary events and Alexandria's official guide, call the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association at (703) 838-4200; or write to the association at 221 King St., Alexandria, Va. 22314; or check www.FunSide.com on the Internet.
Alexandria attractions include:
* Black History Resource Center, 638 N. Alfred St. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Free. (703) 838-4356.
* Carlyle House, 121 N. Fairfax St. Open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 4:30 p.m. Sundays. $4, $2 for children 11 to 17. (703) 549-2997.
* Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site, 4301 W. Braddock Road. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Free. (703) 838-4848.
* Gadsby's Tavern Museum, 134 N. Royal St. Open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays at this time of year. Last guided tours begin at 3:15 p.m. $4, $2 for children 11 to 17. (703) 838-4242.)
* George Washington Masonic National Memorial, King Street and Callahan Drive. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Guided tours of the tower rooms and observation level are offered every half hour in the morning, every hour in the afternoon. Free. (703) 683-2007.
* Lyceum, Alexandria's history museum, is at 201 S. Washington St. Open 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Free. (703) 838-4994.
* Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop, 105-107 S. Fairfax St. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays; closed Wednesdays from November through March. $2.50, $2 for children 11 to 17. (703) 836-3713.)
* Torpedo Factory Art Center is at 105 N. Union St., a half-block north of King Street. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Free. (703) 838-4565).
Block discount tickets for Carlyle House, Gadsby's Tavern and Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary cost $9, $5 for children 11 to 17.
Even when there are no anniversaries to celebrate, Alexandria has a full schedule. More than 200 are scheduled this year, probably twice as many as in other years, said Philip C. Brooks, chairman of the city's 250th Anniversary Commission.
Pub Date: 02/21/99