Historic home plays host to salon benefitting the Athenaeum

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By Jennifer Powell (Photo/Jennifer Powell)

Ashley and George Wilson’s recently renovated home on Prince Street has no fewer than two front doors and bears the distinct legacy of being a daily landmark for three centuries of Alexandrians. Prior to the elegant building becoming a home in 1986, it served as five sequential incarnations of business then government and municipal offices dating back to 1806.

The Wilsons opened their home to visitors last weekend, through their left front door, for a professional salon-style
discussion about the importance of historic preservation.

After a social hour held on the ground floor, Ashley Wilson led guests upstairs to the salon room. Guests were treated to Wilson’s vivacious retelling of how she and George met and came to own their home. For Ashley, the Graham Gund architect for the Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it was a perfectly logical condition for marriage that “that she absolutely had to live in a historic house.”

The house they bought and then extensively renovated was first constructed as the Bank of Potomac building and appeared on bank notes that the Wilsons said might have been the earliest visual print of any structure in Alexandria. The three and one-half-story building with Flemish bond brickwork and stone trim had four bays, two arched doorways — one private and one public — and a single dormer, all of which still exist.

Wilson shared that the Bank of the Potomac could be considered “an early American skyscraper” in the 1800s.
In 1847, the Bank of Potomac merged with the Farmers Bank. Bank operations ended in the fall of 1861 during Alexandria’s Civil War occupation. In 1862, Union officers used part of the building for offices and in 1863 it became the headquarters of the Restored Government of Virginia.

After western Virginia counties loyal to the Union became the state of West Virginia, Governor Francis Pierpont relocated the capitol of restored Virginia to 415 Prince St., making it the capital building for all of Virginia and West Virginia.

After the war, it became an insurance office, then the offices for the Alexandria Water Company. Sold in the early 20th century, the property was converted to apartments and called The Virginia. In 1959, after undergoing extensive renovations, it became known as The Statehouse, a reference to its days as a seat of government.

In 1986 the building became a private residence, and in 1987 the owner obtained a preservation easement with the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission.

Wilson said that around this time, the expansive and filled-in basement was cleared of clay to reveal the incredible bricks made by slaves and mortar work that can be seen today. The basement served as the home’s kitchen, with food being sent up via a dumbwaiter to the dining room on the second floor. Two changes of owners later and the Wilsons bought the home in 2010.

Tom Mayes, vice president and general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has 30 years of experience in historic preservation and received the prestigious Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome in 2013. Mayes said while in Rome, he saw the need for stronger policies on historic preservation, and came to understand what drives the impulse to care and protect old sites and buildings.

Concepts like architecture, history, creativity, identity, memory and community all play a part in why we feel the need to preserve the old. Mayes said architecture in particular embodies the ideas of proportion, harmony and symmetry, with principles of pressure, expansion and contraction or light and shadows.

The ideas and feelings from architecture lead people to anthropomorphize buildings. They see a face, and they see structures as safe or dangerous. People also see their own timeline in the history of buildings. Much like a student who vividly remembers a field trip, historic properties have a way of giving the viewer a vivid immersion into their own past or history overall. It is simply the power of place.

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