Columns Opinion — 12 December 2013
How the American Legion Post 24 saved Gadsby’s Tavern

(Photo/City of Alexandria)

In the first quarter of the 20th century, one of the great forces promoting civic pride, historic preservation and the economic benefits of tourism in Alexandria was the American Legion Post 24. After several earlier initiatives to clean up neglected areas of the city, this organization largely began the historic preservation movement with its 1929 purchase of Gadsby’s Tavern at 134 N. Royal St.

American Legion members literally mortgaged their homes to provide the funding necessary to maintain — and begin restoration of — the property through the dark years of the Great Depression.

Although Gadsby’s was clearly Alexandria’s most important and successful hostelry during the 18th and 19th centuries — serving as a center of community interaction, public gatherings and information during that period — the tavern’s social influence was greatly reduced by the beginning of the 20th century. By 1910, the building served as a second-hand clothing and rag shop, with boarding-house-style lodgings above.

Over the next seven years, the tavern’s owners began to sell off significant portions of the building’s notable woodwork, such as the front entryway and second-floor ballroom, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for inclusion in that institution’s newly developed American Wing. By 1926, a travel publication called attention to the historic tavern but described the building as “a mere shell,” prompting American Legion members to discuss how the integrity of the structure could be preserved for future generations.

This photograph, taken shortly after the local post of the American Legion acquired Gadsby’s Tavern, shows the major facade alterations that occurred during the early 20th century. The original tavern section, in the center, has had a projecting storefront window and doorway placed in the space formerly occupied by two six-over-six sash windows. And the spectacular doorway to the later City Hotel addition, to the right, has already been replaced by an interior substitute.

Yet, even in this condition, the building appears to have been spruced up considerably for consideration as a community landmark. Close observers of the photo will note the small model of a restored Gadsby’s Tavern, installed in the projecting display window by American Legion members to promote their plans and future vision for the structure.

Out of the Attic is provided by the 
Office of Historic Alexandria.

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