Saturday, September 13, 2014

Discovering Old Town Alexandria

One of my excursions I took when visiting Washington D.C. was to explore Alexandria, Virginia.  It was a quick hop on the Metro to get there.  My niece and I got there quite early on a Saturday morning so, the visitor's center wasn't open yet.  The good thing was that the Farmer's Market was up and running.  I didn't realize that this Farmer's Market is open year round which is nice I'm sure for people who actually live here.  In the Midwest our Farmer's markets are only open in the summer time.  The other neat fact is that this is the same Farmer's Market that George Washington sold his fresh vegetables and fruit at.  It has been running for over 250 years.  We managed to find some yummy breakfast snacks before we headed over the Ramsay House (Visitor's Center).
Ramsey House
King Street View

Previous warehouse of John Fitzgerald (mayor and friend of G.W.), now a Starbucks
We opted to do our own walking tour of the town.  Picked up a map and started trekking through the streets admiring the restored 18th & 19th century buildings. Since most stores weren't open yet, we headed down to the Waterfront Park to take some pictures.  Down by the waterfront there are some historical signs explaining the significance of King street but, they are not that easy to find.
My niece being funny!
Photo spots
While we were waiting for the Torpedo Factory to open at 10am, we hung out on the waterfront doing a little people watching.  Also waiting with us were a huge group of bicyclists that were also deaf.  It was a very impressive sight watching them all communicate with sign language.  It made my niece and I want to learn how to sign.  Once everything started opening up we went in to explore the Torpedo Factory.  This is where they made the torpedo's during World War II.  Now it has been converted to house artists' studios and the Alexandria Archaeology Museum.  If you love art, you will love exploring these buildings around the waterfront.  Lots of history here! 

Torpedo Factory Art Center

Inside the Torpedo Factory
Inside the Torpedo Factory
Alexandria waterfront
Potomac River
Our next stop on our walking tour was a trip down Captain's Row.  This is one of the oldest blocks in Alexandria.  Sea captains built their homes and lived here while Alexandria was a thriving shipping port.  This is by far one of the most picturesque streets in Old Town Alexandria.  The architecture of the houses are impressive and that a good majority of the homes have the oval plaques on the front designating them as part of the Historic Alexandria Foundation certifying that they are at least 100 years old.  I think my niece took at least 2 rolls of film (she's learning photography on a film camera) on this street alone.
authentic cobblestone street

Captain's Row

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Homes that have historical plaques on the outside

Carlyle House

Alexandria City Hall

Walking through the town you will see one famous building after another but, there is one that I found more impressive than most and that is Alexandria's City Hall. This was the site of the Assembly Hall and on March 22, 1785 the first conference between representatives from Virginia and Maryland that resulted in the framing of the Constitution of the United States. 
Right down the road from the City Hall is George Washington's Townhouse.  George built this house for his own use when in Alexandria on business.  This was also the only home he left in his will to Martha outright. It is a quaint little home although it looks out of place between the two larger homes next to it. 
George Washington's Townhouse

Christ Church
We spent some time going through the cemetery for Christ Church.  The tombstones were stunning in the amount of details that were put on them beside the dates.   The mound by the gate is for the Confederate Soldiers that were not originally from Alexandria.
"How sleep the brave who sink to rest
By all their country's wishes blest"

Inside Christ Church - George Washington's pew #60 
Actual Sundial

Beautiful store display (great watercolor painting pic)
Only in America!
You literally can't miss the George Washington Masonic Memorial because you can see it for miles.  Getting to the memorial takes a bit of stamina since it is a bit of a up hill climb.  If you want to see the impressive view of Alexandria from the 9th floor observation deck you will have to buy guided tour tickets. Otherwise you can roam through the first two floors without tickets.
View of Alexandria from atop the steps of the G.W. Memorial
George Washington Masonic Memorial

This is a great side trip and you can see almost everything in half a day. Definitely recommend a visit if you are a history buff! 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Stepping into the past...afternoon at Mount Vernon

If you are visiting Washington D.C. take some time to spend an afternoon at Mount Vernon. 

Getting There: Using public transportation is an adventure in itself.  You have to take the Metro to the end of the line than transfer to a bus.  The key here is to get on Bus 101 ($1.80 exact change) and it will take you directly to the plantation.  It takes about a half hour.  It might seem quite exhaustive to figure out how to get to Mount Vernon but, it is so worth the effort once you walk through the gates.

Mount Vernon Mansion
View from the back porch (Potomac River)
Once you arrive at the Main Gate get your tickets, there is a separate ticket to tour the Mansion.  I would recommend going as early in the day as possible since tickets to tour inside the Mansion go fast.  If you just want to walk the grounds there is plenty to see but, to see in the actual house is pretty amazing.  

Little Parlor
Downstairs Bedchamber
The tour takes you through the New Room out to the porch back in to the Central Passage.  This is the actual key to the Bastille prison in Paris, which was given to George from Marquis de Lafayette.  The key still hangs exactly where George put it.  You then walk up the stairs to see all the bedchambers.  The highlight up here is George Washington's bedchamber.  This is where George passed away on Dec. 14, 1799.  Martha stopped using this room after this and moved up to the third floor (not on the tour).
George Washington's Bedchamber
Presidential Chair
After seeing the second floor you head back down to the main floor to see the study.  This one room has a lot to see in it.  In the picture above you can see George's fan chair.  He would move the fan by pressing on the pedals by his feet.  Also, in the study sits the chair George Washington used while he was president.  He was very fond of new inventions and this particular seat swiveled.  There are so many interesting things to see on this tour. The only drawback is if there are a lot of people touring the mansion they do tend to keep you moving and you can't linger very long.

Once you get out of the main house you have more time to spend on the kitchen and outer buildings. The main meal, dinner, was served at 3pm with a lighter meal, supper, being later around 9pm.  You can imagine how busy this place was to keep everyone who lived here fed.
Kitchen on the right of Mansion


One thing you will notice right away is all the gardens around Mount Vernon.  There are five separate gardens designed by George Washington.  The first garden you see is the landscape garden that you walk through to get to the Mansion.  The lower garden was used for the kitchen.  The upper garden was originally for fruits and nuts switched to be more decorative.  There was a botanical garden and further down the plantation was the fruit garden and nursery.
Lower Garden
Fruit Garden
Spinning Room
One of the family's enslaved black servants
Clerk's Quarters

Blacksmith Shop
The outer buildings have a lot of history in them to explore.  The Clerk's quarters were sparse but, efficient for that position.  Every building that was important to the running of the Mansion was located near it, including the Storehouse, Smokehouse, and Salt House.

The Blacksmith Shop was another hub of activity around Mount Vernon from doing mundane tasks to inventing farm equipment.  They actually had a person working in the shop while we were visiting.  

The Coach House and Stable were always busy.  Both George and Martha were avid horse riders.  The Stable even dates back to Washington's time.  One area that children will enjoy is the farm animals. There are a bunch of sheep by the stable that you can pet when they come close to the fence.
Once you have visited all the out buildings head south to the Forest Trail.  This scenic path gives you a feeling of how wild this was during Washington's lifetime.  As you walk the paths you might even hear some music.  I eventually found the speakers hidden very well in the trees.  This entire plantation does a really good job on creating the realistic feel of how it might have been back then. 
Forest Trail
George Washington's Tomb
Within this Enclosure Rest the Remains of Gen. George Washington
As you walk the path you will see signs directing you to Washington's Tomb.  This tomb was built exactly to Washington's instructions left in his will.  Martha and all of his relatives now lay to rest here.  This is a very somber area.  Very quiet and there is usually a line to view the opening of the Tomb. 

Walking a bit further in the forest brings you to the Slave Burial Ground and Memorial.  There are no tombstones for the slaves buried here but, the estimate is that there are up to 75 graves around the memorial.  Around the Slave Memorial are the words Love, Hope and Faith.  
Slave Burial Grounds
Slave Memorial
A good portion of Mount Vernon's income came from fishing.  The Potomac River provided a great source of food and income to Washington.  If you get tired after the walk down to the wharf there is a shuttle pick up spot that will get you back up to Museum.
Potomac River
Right next to the wharf is the Pioneer Farm.  There are usually demonstrations for people to see how slaves worked the farms.  Walking up to the barn, there is a display to show George's ideas on fencing and all the options he tried.  All over the farm you will see signs explaining all the ideas George tried out to maximize his farming output.
Pioneer Farm
Washington designed this 16-sided barn to help with the process of turning wheat to grain. Horses would walk around in circles tromping on the wheat to get the grain to fall through the gaps to the first floor.
16-Sided Barn

Inside of Barn
Slave Cabin
The slave cabin shows how the field hand slaves lived.  A whole family would live here.  The husband might work up by the Mansion and the wife worked in the field.  The hearth was all the family had for heat, light, and cooking area.

I know from what I read about George Washington he struggled with the concept of slavery but, with the size of the Mount Vernon plantation it is no wonder he relied on slavery to make Mount Vernon prosper and survive.
I am more than amazed of how much George Washington was a leader in innovation throughout his entire plantation.  His ideas for farming and gardening were ingenious.  What a great mind he was!
George Washington
Of course, no visit is complete without hitting the Shops at Mount Vernon for your souvenirs to take home with you.  I know that I spent tons of time looking through every display they had in each section of the shops and went home with quite a few mementos.

All in all a wonderful & peaceful afternoon stepping into the past and experiencing what it would have been like to live in George Washington's world.