Capital's Neighbor Offers History

Monday, February 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — Near the river, vibrant blue in the late afternoon sun, a sign in an arts center that once was a torpedo factory reads: ``If this is Alexandria that must be the Nile.''

Six miles up the Potomac, not the Nile — the dome of the U.S. Capitol rises from the skyline, looking just a bit like a Civil War-era hot air balloon straining to take flight.

With outcroppings of every era since the French and Indian War, Virginia's Alexandria is older by half a century than the District of Columbia of which it once was a part. Feeling neglected, it disentangled itself from the district in 1847, rejoining the state of Virginia.

Alexandria is a multilayered place with many points of view. It traded with the world from its riverfront docks and warehouses. Before the Civil War, some of its merchants traded in slaves. It was twice occupied by invading armies. Its oldest houses, most identified with color-coded metal plaques, are a sourcebook of colonial and federal style.

Many of the street names still reflect the town's pre-Revolutionary origins: Royal, King, Prince, Princess.

But even though the Egyptian connection crops up from time to time, the origin of the town's name has no link to Egypt's city of Alexander the Great. This Alexandria was named for John Alexander, a practical Scotsman who in 1669 purchased the land on which the river village was later laid out.

On the top of Shuter's Hill west of the river, overlooking both Old Town and 20th Century suburban development, is a 333-foot tall, tiered monument that reinforces the Egyptian impression while asserting the town's link to George Washington, its most famous son.

The George Washington National Masonic Memorial is a re-creation of the ancient lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Its museum counts among its treasures a mantle clock from Washington's Mount Vernon plantation.

The clock's hands are said to have been stopped by Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, an Alexandria physician, at the moment of Washington's death on the evening of Dec. 14, 1799. His house still stands on Duke Street.

Washington's footsteps are easily traced in Alexandria. He worshipped at Christ Church (1773); purchased medicine at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop (now a museum); danced at formal balls at Gadsby's Tavern and, in 1769, built a wooden cottage on Cameron Street where a replica now stands.

On a traffic island at Washington and Prince streets, the statue of a Confederate soldier lowers his head, folds his bronze arms, and coolly and deliberately turns his back on Washington D.C. The federal capital is now just minutes away by the Metro commuter line.

This is a place where timelines skip back and forth in the course of a short walk.

The stories are well told in ``A Guide to Historic Alexandria,'' by William Seale, an Alexandria resident and architectural historian whose two-volume history of the White House is widely considered a classic.

Seale recalls that when Union troops occupied the town in May 1861 their commander, a youthful colonel named Elmer Ellsworth had a mission. He was determined to pull down the large Confederate flag he had seen flying over a local hotel all the way from the White House.

Hotelkeeper James Jackson ``had pledged to kill any man who attempted to tear it down.''

``Boys, I've got the flag,'' Ellsworth said as he descended from the roof with the banner over his shoulder. ``Yea, and I've got you,'' Jackson replied, and after a scuffle shot and killed him.''

Ellsworth, a friend of President Abraham Lincoln, was mourned at a funeral in the East Room of the White House. Like much in Alexandria, a plaque marks the spot where the shots were fired.

Another war was ending in 1917 when work began on a factory designed to produce torpedoes for the U.S. submarine fleet.

Production peaked during World War II, then shut down with the end of the conflict. The fireproof concrete construction proved useful for government storage: art works and dinosaur bones from the Smithsonian Institution and even the captured personal papers of Adolf Hitler and his mistress, Eva Braun.

In a slow transformation, art replaced torpedoes. The aptly named Torpedo Factory became a center for working artists, craftsmen, printmakers, photographers and workers in glass and ceramics.

Nancy Reinke, the Torpedo Factory print maker who created the ``that must be the Nile'' print, says it was inspired by a television reporter's misinformed comment during a long-ago presidential visit to Egypt.

The Egyptian Alexandria is in the western Nile delta but not actually on the Nile. But Reinke figures a little artistic license is allowed.

``If you live in Alexandria, Va. it's pretty funny,'' she said.


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