How Gary Eyler became a custodian for Alexandria’s history

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Gary Eyler at his Old Town shop at 222 S. Washington St. (Photo Credit: Evan Berkowitz)
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By Evan Berkowitz | eberkowitz@alextimes.com

Gary Eyler can readily get his hands on pretty much anything in his cramped shop on South Washington Street.

Ask him for the perfect complement to your next framing job and he’ll return posthaste with a fragment of molding that suits the piece.

Raise the concept of a passion project and he’ll produce another he’s made of the same ilk.
And if Eyler wants to show you something from his or the Old Colony Shop’s holdings (a military appointment signed by Abe Lincoln; a Wright Flyer postcard featuring a firsthand account of the inaugural flight), you can bet he’ll find it among his myriad piles in a matter of seconds.

“I’m left handed,” he said by way of explanation, turning to admire the spoils of the basement framing shop that makes up half of Old Colony’s business.

And a photographic memory to boot?

“Yeah, you could say that,” he posited. “I just have a keen sense.”

Since opening his shop in 1989, Eyler has seen just about everything come through his downstairs Dutch door. That variety, coupled with Eyler’s effortless looking expertise born from an autodidactic history education, makes the Old Colony shop special.

“He’s someone in the community,” said Lyceum director Jim Mackay, “who you can count on to be every bit as much into local history as you are.”

Even as antique shop numbers dwindle and the market for rarities forces a winnowing of inventory and a sharper eye for what’s saleable, Eyler takes pride in his prominent slice of the Port City.

“When tourists come to town, they expect to see a shop like this,” he said. “They come to Alexandria to find a shop like this.”

A passion that has become an obsession

Gary Eyler’s Old Colony Shop at 222 S. Washington St. (Photo Credit: Evan Berkowitz)

In 1989, Jim Barnes, Eyler’s mentor for a decade and namesake owner of the gallery that had occupied Old Colony’s storefront, died at a young age. Shortly thereafter, Eyler and his wife went out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant.

“The location came up for rent and I had no employment,” Eyler recalled.

“We got a fortune cookie and I open it up and the fortune said, ‘You’ll do well to start a business.’”

That settled it.

After being denied for a loan by venerable Burke and Herbert Bank, Eyler turned to a longtime client who offered him seed money, with interest, to open the shop.

“I paid him back within two years,” Eyler chuckled. “And I do use Burke and Herbert as my main banking — and they’re quite happy with me now.”

Eyler had learned his trade through a series of apprenticeships with a manuscript
dealer, a rare books trader and Barnes, an art conservator.

His interest in collecting began during childhood.

“At a young age, back before we had the cellphones and all that other stuff, in order to keep us occupied we either collected coins, stamps, bugs, rocks — whatever interest a person had,” he said.

“So collecting stamps led to envelopes, envelopes led to letters and letters led to content and primary source material.”

In books, you find engravings, and that leads to the artwork as well.

“It kind of all circles together, and what I did was combine interest,” Eyler said. “Most businesses just specialize in one subject, and I kind of combined it all. It’s a passion that has become an obsession.”

After opening up Old Colony, the high profile commissions came in quickly.

It didn’t take long for the White House to select Eyler for a job on a set of West Winghung watercolors by Norman Rockwell called “So You Want to See the President?” The four-work set is framed in Birdseye Maplewood from a tree Rockwell hand-selected off his Stockbridge, Massachusetts, property.

“Fascinating,” Eyler exclaimed. 

He’s also framed presentation pieces commemorating ribbon cuttings at the White House’s press briefing room (ironic, Eyler said, considering former Press Secretary Sean Spicer is a longtime Old Colony customer); the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, and the Situation Room.

He’s framed objects for the Pentagon, the Republican National Committee, The National Press Club, the Smithsonian Institution, George Washington’s Mt. Vernon and the Lyceum, among other formidable clientele.

“Because the staffs are small at the city museums, … it really helps to have interested people in the community,” Lyceum Director Jim Mackay said. “The framing and conservation work that he does … has been a critical process for us to preserve some of these pieces.” A particular honor for Eyler was his commission from the Vatican to frame Pope John Paul II’s Presidential Medal of Freedom.

And while he’s humbled by some of the objects and commissions that cross his threshold, Eyler said he views every object without bias.

“I’ve worked on items a million [dollars] and up,” he said, “but I try to treat everything on an equal basis.”

Personal family items are often a standout, he said.

“It’s nice to be chosen to take on a task and have the confidence of the person,” he said. “Everyone can have a Civil War print, but if someone brings in a personal family item, I know how dear that is to that individual and has to be treated just like if I’m working on a multi-million dollar…artwork or document.”

A knowledge of what came before

Over the years, Eyler has made a number of important historical discoveries, many centered on the Port City.

“About a month ago, I had an incredible manuscript, maybe one of three or
four known to exist, signed by both George and Martha Washington as a couple on the same document,” he said.

The document is a deed for a tenant house on the corner of Prince and Pitt streets in Alexandria, and it’s dated just about two months before George Washington’s death.
“To me,” Eyler said, “that’s a pinnacle piece.” A few years prior, Eyler discovered an 1823 document in which Edmund Jennings Lee freed a female slave he owned. A member of the prominent family that spawned Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Jennings Lee’s presence on such a document fascinated Eyler.

“In my research, Edmund Jennings Lee turned out to be one of the first abolitionists in Alexandria,” he said, “and here he is writing this manumission paper for a middle-
aged lady.”

The document is now preserved at the Alexandria Black History Museum, Eyler said.
Two years ago, he discovered a manuscript describing the 1781 voyage of a British ship to Alexandria to resupply British prisoners of war being held in Charlottesville during the Revolution.

“I spent months researching it,” Eyler said. “Turned out the manuscript was written by General George Weedon in Fredericksburg. … The ship was a British ship but onboard was an American escort who would turn out to be a future president of the United States.”

It was James Monroe.

“That’s an unknown history line in Alexandria,” he said. “I discovered it, and that’s a neat thing.” Mackay said he values Eyler’s ability to recognize and research historic discoveries as they walk through the Old Colony Shop’s door.

“What I appreciate in [Eyler] is not only the sincere interest in local history, just kind of the historical curiosity and fascination with the past that he has, … but also the professional skill and knowledge from years doing it,” Mackay said. “It’s a mix of that pure historical curiosity as well as the professional skill to really know the pieces and know what you’re looking at.”

It’s this role that Eyler considers his most sacrosanct duty.

“Some of it’s serendipity, being at the right place at the right time,” he said — “being open, … and if it’s an acquisition, having the funds to acquire it.”

Eyler said institutions like George Washington’s Mount Vernon or the White House come back to his business because he’s demonstrated the ability to capitalize on his knowledge in a similar way. Whether buying, selling, appraising, restoring or simply framing, it all comes down to a photographic knowledge of what came before.

“My job here is to interpret and understand what an object is,” Eyler said, sparing a few moments before his fourth customer of our interview time appeared. “I’m a custodian of history.” 

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