Athenaeum unveils massive renovations


The Athenaeum, though familiar to many in Alexandria, has revealed inexplicable mysteries over the course of her renovations this past year.

This historic Athenaeum underwent renovations from June to October and unveiled its new look with an event Jan. 16 where attendees were treated to 18 wines and the art of six Southern self-taught artists. We celebrated the occasion with a world tour of wines, said Mari Stull, an Athenaeum Board member. At the event, candles flickered, bossanova jazz wafted and an exhibit of works from self-taught artists from the American South excited art aficionados.

This was the first event held specifically to show off the building and renovations, Twig Murray, chair of the Building Committee, said.  The point is to bring people into the building and expand the number of people who know about us.

Partygoers discovered some of the Athenaeums idiosyncrasies that have eluded historians over the years.  They examined the window on the West side of the building, which befuddled the Athenaeum Building Committee and wondered why such an asymmetry exists.  Inexplicable brick aberrations appear on the back of the building.  A brick-filled window frame would have a view of 10 feet of dirt on the other side.  An old door hinge is embedded in the same wall, also facing a wall of dirt.  Historians also have no explanation for two concrete patches on the portico that Murray excavated, finding reason for their existence.

Not all of the history of the Athenaeum is a mystery.  The Athenaeum began as the Bank of the Old Dominion in 1852.  A massive block of stone and rock, still visible in the basement, provided the base for the banks vault.  Union forces commandeered the bank, forcing a close ten years later. 

Following the occupation of Alexandria, the building became the office of the United States Commissary Quartermaster.  Thereafter, Leadbetter and Sons, one of the oldest Alexandria firms, ran their wholesale pharmacy business.  One item popular in the hot Alexandria summers was talcum powder.  During the recent renovation small bottles with the original Leadbetter logo were unearthed in the rubble under the floor. 

In 1925 the Free Methodist Church of North America formed the first society of the Methodist faith in the Maryland-Virginia region.

The renovations include structural corrections and installation of reclaimed heart pine floor, replacing floor vents, removing the false wall on the West side of the building, upgrading electrical work and patching and painting the interior.
Those who have seen the Athenaeum since October become exhilirated when they see the changes, Murray said. They make it sound like its an entirely different place, Murray said.  In fact, its not that different, just nicely renovated.  The only structural difference is the absence of the false wall.

The Athenaeum, home to the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association, is expanding its arts, performance and lecture programs.

The present exhibit, Wild Imaginations, curated by Ginger Young, is highly collected.  The works include artists Howard Finster, James Harold Jennings, Nellie Mae Rowe, James Arthur Snipes, Jimmy Lee Sudduth and Mose Tolliver.