From slaughterhouse to schoolhouse

By Derrick Perkins

It’s not quite striking pay dirt, but archeologists combing over the future site of the re-imagined Jefferson-Houston School may have found the remains of a long-buried slaughterhouse.

An archeological survey conducted by URS, a New Jersey-based contractor, earlier this year revealed what could be a portion of a building foundation underneath the Cameron Street school athletic fields. Prior research has archeologists with the city and URS wondering if the bricks might belong to a previously unknown slaughterhouse.

But then again, it might be nothing more than refuse, said Mark Eisenhour, principal on assignment with Alexandria City Public Schools.

“We found some bricks,” he said. “They may be a foundation to the house, but we’re not sure.”

The district included an archeological survey in its budget for the project, essentially hiring URS to do the research and then dig small holes and trenches in spots likely to yield artifacts. Now employees will return to the site for further excavation.

While Eisenhour remains wary of drawing any conclusions, URS archaeology program manager Scott Seibel said the evidence — so far — indicates the schoolhouse may someday sit atop the former slaughterhouse.

“That came completely through the historical research: chain of [property] title research and also looking back at census records, trying to find newspaper articles and advertisements [about] the people who actually owned the property,” Siebel said. “That’s how we got to the idea of the slaughterhouse.”

The most convincing clues come from the property’s past owners, who shared connections to the butchery business. And the land was at times used as a cattle run, including during the Civil War, Siebel said, making it a convenient spot for a slaughterhouse.

“This area, because it was on the fringes, we knew it was likely to be kind of agricultural,” he said. “It didn’t have the dense development you had a couple blocks over more into Old Town, that dense residential and business activity.”

But for almost a century, the property has been primarily known as an educational institution. The site served as the home of Alexandria High School, also remembered as Jefferson Annex, starting in 1915. In 1922, a second school — Jefferson School — went up on the land.

Officials scooped up the Durant Center, originally built in 1942 as a USO club for white servicemen and women, after the war and added it to the growing complex. The existing school was built in 1970.

While Eisenhour said there is concern that subsequent finds and excavation could delay construction of the re-imagined Jefferson-Houston — scheduled to open for the 2014 school year — nothing short of a major discovery would prevent the building project from happening, said Garrett Fesler, a city archeologist.

“If something of supreme significance were to be discovered, that certainly would cause all of us to scrutinize [the project] very closely and try to figure out a way to preserve or collect the information,” Fesler said. “Certainly, if there was something of incredible significance … it would be either be preserved in place somewhere or excavated in full before the school would be built.

“But essentially, what we’ve got in place is a way to mitigate any of the archeological materials that come up so the progress can go on.”

Anything found at the site — not previously explored by city archeologists — hopefully would be incorporated into the school’s curriculum, said Fesler and Eisenhour.

“It’s on city property, so any of the findings, obviously, belong to the city, and what we hope to be able to do in a project like this, especially since it’s associated with a school, the findings — whatever it turns out to be — will be used within the educational program at the school at Jefferson-Houston,” Fesler said.

Archeologists with URS began the second phase of excavation earlier this week and expect to have the work wrapped by December 21.

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