Frozen in time at Gadsbys Tavern

Frozen in time at Gadsbys Tavern

An odd parade of colonial re-enactors, residents and Gadsbys Tavern Museum volunteers trundled 300 pounds of ice up Cameron Street from the waterfront Sunday afternoon.


The three thick blocks of ice were parked outside the historic tavern and museum as onlookers crowded around to watch volunteers haul the frozen goods from a wooden cart and stack them on the cobbled brick sidewalk. Another 126 blocks were previously stocked inside the taverns historic ice well.

Museum staff organized the event to create buzz around planned renovations to the 18th centurys version of a refrigerator and icemaker. 

I think its something you dont normally see, said Gretchen Bulova, museum director. You dont normally even think about where ice comes from or how it was used or how it was stored and preserved.

The ready availability of ice was one of the luxurious flourishes that put John Gadsbys corner tavern on the map in the citys colonial years. Built by the taverns original owner, John Wise, sometime around 1793, the ice was kept stocked in the winter, providing ice for chilled drinks even in the summer months.   

Amenities were the name of the game in the 18th century hospitality industry, Bulova said. 

What was it that made this tavern so different, so special, that people knew of Gadsbys all over the world? Bulova asked. Why did people rave about the parties? It was the little things: the availability of getting fresh laundry and a cart to pick you up and take you different places.

But as times changed and modern appliances replaced colonial ingenuity, the ice well faded from memory. The structure was rediscovered in the 1950s after a truck traveling down Cameron Street got stuck in the collapsing well.

When the building was renovated two decades later, archeologists excavated the abandoned ice room. 

While much of the tavern has been restored using city dollars, they fell short of funding much-needed renovations to the ice well, Bulova said. Now museum staffers and volunteers are struggling to raise $300,000 to finish the job. 

With the recent recession hampering fundraising efforts, Bulova and company have taken a more creative strategy. At a cost of $10 per guess, would-be prognosticators are invited to wager on when the ice now stored in the well will finally melt away. 

Theyre using colonial techniques to preserve the ice for as long as possible, including insulating the blocks with sawdust and hay. A web cam, available for viewing online, monitors the ice bricks as they slowly give in to heat. 

Its just one part of the larger effort to raise the remaining $200,000 needed for the project. The museum also has gone after grants and donations to fill their coffers and theyve got enough to begin work. When the full amount is raised, the entire project should take about 10 months to finish, Bulova said.

Bulova and her husband, David, were on hand Sunday to talk about the ice well, colonial ice-keeping tricks and the many uses the chilled Potomac River water would have had in Gadsbys Tavern. 

David, who pushed the ice-laden cart up the sloping street to the tavern, said Alexandrias colonial craftsmen had the process down to an art, if not a science. 

For 300 pounds of ice it wasnt all that difficult and the toughest part was losing your footing when you got to the modern pavement as opposed to the good old fashioned brick sidewalks, he said. With the colonial tools it was really pretty easy. I think our forefathers knew what the heck they were doing in that case.