The Lyceum Turns Back the Hands of Time

The Lyceum Turns Back the Hands of Time

One of the best all-round family stops on the Old Town Passport tour is the 19th century Greek Revival Alexandria Lyceum at the corner of Prince and South Washington streets. Modest in size, the Lyceum has an interesting permanent Alexandria history exhibit for all ages, two coloring tables for children, a reasonably priced gift-shop, and parking for those who come by car, in addition to being an easy one block walk from King Street for folks who take the trolley. The special exhibits are also worth taking in and a special effort is made to have diverse exhibits, with wide-ranging appeal, about different aspects of Alexandrias history.

The Lyceum was the creation of a group of gentlemen friends who got together with the Alexandria Library Company in 1839 to build a combination lecture/reception hall and a display area with exhibit space for scientific experiments. In addition, they wanted to carve out space in the new building for quiet reading. The men who proceeded with this venture called themselves the Alexandria Lyceum.

The elegant building has reinvented itself a number of times and served its occupants in a variety of ways including as a private home, a Civil War hospital, an office building and in 1974, the first Bicentennial Center in the United States. For the past 24 years, the Lyceum has been Alexandrias history museum with over 1,500 historical objects in the permanent collection; 16 years ago the Lyceum was accredited by the American Association of Museums. Now the upstairs is primarily dedicated to reception rooms that serve as a popular venue for charitable events, receptions and parties.

The permanent Lyceum collection has furniture, photos and paintings, arrowheads and ancient Indian points, silver, old business and historical documents, and even a carronade, which looks like a small cannon. Made by the Carron Company in Scotland, the carronade eventually ended up in the Potomac after it was lost from a ship during the War of 1812. Some of the Indian points and blades in the permanent exhibit were found in Alexandria and date back to 3,500-3,000 BC. There is a barrel of tobacco to show the importance of tobacco as a cash crop for Alexandria, and so visitors can smell and see the texture of real tobacco.

The youngsters I took with me to the Lyceum thought the old photos were fun to look at, especially the one of the train car made in Alexandria for President Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, Lincoln never got to ride in the train car when he was alive but it did carry his body back to Springfield, Illinois for burial. Some of the photographs in Alexandrias permanent collection were taken by famous photographers from the 1800s including Mathew Brady, Andrew Russell, and Alexander Gardner.

Predictably, the children all loved seeing the Indian points and artifacts but were less interested in the furniture crafted in Alexandria and the silver in the showcases. Currently, there are two large lighthouse beacons on display, one from the old Jones Point lighthouse. Coming soon to the museum is an exhibit of Alexandrias boat- building business.

The museum is a nice, quiet building to visit and learn more about the history of Alexandria. It offers a peaceful respite just one block away from the hustle and bustle of King Street where visitors can peruse the historical descriptions and displays of the city. The permanent exhibit is interesting without being overwhelming while the two small tables with little chairs, buckets of crayons and historical drawings for children to color make it possible for parents to look around the museum while kids are happily occupied.