We must take care as we redevelop the historic waterfront

We must take care as we redevelop the historic waterfront

By J. G. Marino, Alexandria
(Image/City of Alexandria) 

To the editor:

On the night of March 8, 1912 at 815 Duke St., John F. Parker, principal of the Snowden School met with Sarah Gray, principal of the Hallowell School, and several other teachers and administrators to discuss improving the educational system in Alexandria for black children. Several years later, the Snowden and Hallowell Schools were combined to create the Parker-Gray School.

As with much of the old and historic district, Duke Street possesses a rich history. There are a great many small gems, hidden away in old periodicals, like the storied meeting of two of the city’s most influential educators. Picture the steps of Dulany House at 601 Duke St., where the Marquis de Lafayette addressed the city in celebration and admiration of its residents for their effort in building a democracy the likes of which the world had never seen.

Prior to the War of 1812, the city maintained an area called Point Lumley at the foot of Duke Street. This was one of the most important sites in the city, not only because of its access to the Potomac, but as a shipyard and location where many ships used in the Revolution were built. There undoubtedly are many stories that can be uncovered about this area, which now stands poised for a redevelopment that will affect Duke Street from the Potomac to the western edges of Old Town.

It likely would be hard for the Marquis de Lafayette or Sarah Gray to imagine gridlock amongst the tree-lined blocks or tour buses — larger than some small houses — rumbling by, shaking the structural components of venerable homes built in the 18th and 19th centuries.

There cannot be many residents who feel the Robinson Terminal and tertiary buildings exhibit the architectural grandeur apparent in the surrounding blocks, as well as the rest of the old and historic district. Likewise, there is no shortage of ideas on how best to plan and design the renewal of this most historic tract.

One of the most important architectural tenets is to produce a design that echoes and complements the subject’s surroundings. In Alexandria, there are several elements a proper design must take into account: the surviving local structures, the overall (less tangible) feel of the neighborhood and, most importantly, the history of the location. Often, it is easy to overlook these elements, especially for a developer with less knowledge of the local area or one that does not have a vested interest in the project’s aftermath.

Residents in the old and historic district take much pride in their properties and those around them. The erosion of character and structures, the impact of changes in density on the roads and existing infrastructure, as well as indifference to historical context are all challenges that must be addressed by the caretakers of Alexandria.

To ensure the sustainability and preservation of Alexandria, it must be asked: What draws people to the historic district of our fair city? What draws residents? What draws visitors? What is it that makes Old Town special? The short answer may be its charm.

In the late 1940s, a book that chronicled early American architecture was published. The title of this book is “A Treasury of Early American Homes.” Inside, author Richard Pratt declared “these two blocks of Colonial and Federal houses on Prince Street have no equal anywhere, for period completeness.” This remarkable, well-preserved Port City is revered by architects, historians and folks who have an appreciation for the architectural roots and milieu of a young country.

This is the “charm.” This is what makes us stand out from other cities, which may have equally long and illustrious histories, but little to show. This is why, as caretakers of that which has been here for generations, all must do right by their predecessors, who like Mayor Charles Beatley knew that what made us grand was our deep, yet tangible, ties to what endures as the foundation of our great city — and our great country.