Excavating a George Washington landmark

Garcia's latest finds, including a clay plate, a lead knife and a women's shoe buckle. (Photos: Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Walking into Rick Garcia’s living room feels more like stumbling upon a cozy, hole-in-the-wall museum than it does stepping foot in someone’s house. The history channel plays an American Revolution program softly in the background, a fire burns on the hearth, antique lamps cast a warm glow throughout the room and countless historical artifacts cover every possible side table and windowsill.

Garcia’s living room is filled with antiques and artifacts.

“This is what we found last week,” Garcia says, brandishing a 150-year-old beer bottle as if it’s an Academy Award. He sniffs the opening of the handblown green glass – “Still smells like beer,” he says.

The antique beer is followed by a knife made entirely out of lead, a penny from 1797, buttons from the civil war and a tiny porcelain doll shoe that is no bigger than a pinkie nail. Garcia neatly displays each artifact with a proud smile and adjusts his American flag ball cap, reveling in the excitement of his discoveries.

The Garcia house at 123 S. Pitt St. was purchased by George Washington in 1763.

For Garcia, finding a well and cistern under his house in Old Town was a history buff’s dream come true.

With the help of city and Mt. Vernon archeologists, Garcia has been delving into centuries of history beneath the floorboards of his living room for the past two months. And not just any history – Garcia’s house at 123 S. Pitt St. was built by George Washington and owned by five different members of the Washington family.

George Washington purchased the property in 1763. Ownership of the home transferred from George to Martha Washington upon his death in 1799, then from Martha to the Washington estate when she died two and a half years later. The house was subsequently owned by Bushrod, Lawrence Augustine and Robert Washington in the following years.

Garcia said when most Alexandrians think Washington’s house in Alexandria, they think of the townhouse at 508 Cameron St. that was reproduced in 1960. He boasted that his house is actually Washington’s craftsmanship, built with his oversight and preserved over time.

The plaque outside of 123 S. Pitt St. identifies the historic home as a tenement house built by George Washington.

“That’s just a reproduction. This is the actual house,” he said. “This really is the Washington house, from the Washington point of view, here in Alexandria.”

Garcia’s connection to Washington runs deeper than homeownership; his wife, Heather Price Garcia, is distantly related to the Washingtons through George Washington’s great grandfather, John Washington.

“This is the perfect house for my wife and I,” he said, “and that her family built it makes it much more worth it. There’s nothing like that, being able to walk into a house and say, well, my relatives, my lineage built this home 250 years ago.”

When they bought their house on South Pitt Street about four years ago, Garcia said they were thrilled about its historical significance and Heather’s family ties to the Washingtons. He said they had not, however, intended to seek out archeological treasures underneath it.

Rick Garcia poses in the
archaeological site underneath his living room. For the past two months, he and his family have been using the black crate beside him to sift through the dirt for artifacts.

It was the planning of a new basement this fall that uncovered the past. Garcia said he had hired an engineer and an architect to dig underneath the addition on the southern side of his house to figure out the logistics of putting in a basement. During the digging, they came across a well and a cistern.

“Nobody had ever been down there, so nobody knew what was there,” Garcia said.

Upon the discovery, Garcia contacted City of Alexandria archeologists to inform them and seek help excavating.

“Our jobs, as Alexandria archeology, are to sort of be the monitors and the collectors of Alexandria’s material past,” city archeologist Garrett Fesler said. “We always appreciate it when owners of pieces of Alexandria … contact us to let us know that something interesting is coming out of the ground on their property, so we can be there and work with them to record it.”

Fesler said city archeologists contacted Mount Vernon because of the house’s ties to George Washington. City and Mt. Vernon archeologists will collaborate to excavate the well and cistern beginning Friday. Felser said up to eight archeologists will continue to work on the property throughout next week.

“Wells and cisterns are one of the most exciting things that an archeologist working in Alexandria can find,” Fesler said. “They’re sort of like time capsules of history. You never know what somebody may have dropped down that well or put in it on purpose or how it got filled up.”

Garcia discovered the well pictured above under his house in the planning stages of putting in a new basement.

“It’s a real present from the past that we get to open up and have a look at,” he said.

Fesler said one of the archeologists’ main questions would be the time period the well was filled. He said if they could identify a time period, they could link materials to specific residents of the property.

“We might be able to … get kind of personal about the historic record on the site,” he said. “What we do as archeologists is look at a whole group of artifacts and try to figure out how they all go together to represent the life of somebody.”

Although the well and cistern will remain untouched until excavations begin Friday, Garcia has taken the reins of his own archeology project and has been digging and sifting through the dirt in the hole under his house for the past two months.

The hole beside Garcia’s home goes five feet into the ground and six feet underneath his house.

Garcia said he’s found more than 2,000 artifacts already while excavating the five-by-six-foot hole. Among the bits of history he’s uncovered so far are Chinese porcelain, marbles, shards of glass, Spanish currency, bones, teeth and shells.

“Rick’s personal enthusiasm for the project has really been great to see,” Fesler said. “He has been doing a great job of saving and collecting the artifacts that he’s seen as they’ve been digging which is really sort of above and beyond what we usually see homeowners doing here in Alexandria … he’s been really great at being a steward for the history on his property.”

Garcia’s enthusiasm stems from a lifelong passion for American history.

The Garcias have uncovered bits of glass, metal and shells while digging in the hole under their house.

“I’ve always loved American history since I was a little kid. I mean the first thing I can remember in my life is being on my daddy’s shoulders in a basketball arena, looking at an American flag. That’s my first memory of my whole life,” he said.

Fesler said he hopes Garcia’s experience encourages other homeowners to contact the city when they uncover interesting things on their properties.

“We’re not trying to stop people from doing whatever they want on their property,” he said. “We like to hear when they uncover interesting things on their property so that we can come out and take a look … We just like to work with them and try to collect as much information as we can.”