EYA, city seek uses for historic Pioneer Mills foundation

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The city has constructed a bulkhead on the waterfront from historic Pioneer Mills stones (Courtesy Photo)
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By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]

Developer EYA and the city have begun the process of relocating the final remaining
foundation stones of Pioneer Mills, the 19th-century industrial building that long occupied the space where Robinson Landing will be constructed on Old Town’s waterfront.

Though the original plan was to incorporate the foundation and related stones
into Robinson Landing, EYA spokesman Brent Burkhardt said half of the stones will now be used or stored by the city and the remainder will be used in other ways, including as foundation material for the new development.

The remaining stones must be moved before construction goes vertical on Robinson Landing and the city has, thus far, not been able to find the equipment, manpower or a final destination for that material, Burkhardt said.

About 100 tons of material were recovered from the site overall, including brick, granite ruble and granite block. So far, city archaeologists have focused on preserving the granite material found and have moved several large piles of stone to the parking lot at Alexandria Union Station.

The city has also used about 30 percent of the foundation material to build a bulkhead adjacent to Point Lumley Park, according to Burkhardt and Al Cox, the city’s historic preservation manager. An additional 20 percent, EYA estimates, has been stored by the city.

Cox said the initial move of the stones to Union Station took place about a month ago after EYA offered the material to the city. The move was done at the city’s expense via a flatbed truck.

AJ Jackson, an EYA partner and senior vice president of land acquisition and development, said the company has run into several challenges with incorporating Pioneer Mills stones into their final product.

“The biggest challenge is really that these are foundation stones. This was stuff that was under the buildings in the ground. It’s not really architectural stone or a wall that
was recovered. It was like the foundation of your house – it wasn’t particularly attractive.
You have to find places where you need big pieces of stone,” Jackson said.

Jackson said he was pleased the city was able to use so much of the stone and material and that EYA continues to work with city archaeologists and Planning & Zoning’s historic preservation staff.

“The fact that [the city] has utilized or stored half of the material to date, more than what is usable, is remarkable. The rest of it that is not used will go back into the construction and be broken up as material for foundations or for utility work.”

Everything that’s left, he said, will be recycled and utilized in some way.

“It will all be used architecturally, the way the city used it at Point Lumley, or will be used in its original sense, as foundation stones and construction stones,” Jackson said. “It will be broken up and recycled. It doesn’t get dropped in the river – it’s still useful.”

Cox said the city plans to utilize some of the stone for historic interpretation purposes on the waterfront, including at the planned Fitzgerald Park, which will be constructed on the site of the former home of the Old Dominion Boat Club at the foot of Prince Street when that building is demolished.

A construction
crew and Thunderbird
archaeologists work to excavate the Robinson Terminal South site in 2017 (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

“We were concerned about the stone. When we discovered it, I thought this is the only example I’m aware of in the city of dressed early 19th-century stones. All the other foundations were below grade granite because early brick couldn’t withstand the dampness of the soil because it wasn’t fired in [a] gas oven – it was fired in a wood-burning oven,” Cox said. “There’s been nothing on the scale of the stone at Pioneer Mills because that was the area’s biggest building.”

The granite found at the Pioneer Mill site will likely be used in conjunction with other finds the city has catalogued in the area, including curb stones that were found when the city excavated the historic Strand street.

“We have a number of things that we’ve gathered that will be used to create seat walls, interpretive foundations for perhaps a new civic building that was proposed in the waterfront master plan. We’re not sure if it will be a building or a civic space in the park in front of Hotel Indigo,” Cox said. “The park area is a theme area that is supposed to relate to our working waterfront, so we’ll reuse [the stones] to talk about the piers that used to be on the waterfront.”

Cox said the Pioneer Mills stones will contribute to the city’s public history in the coming decades.

“You can tell the story of filling in the shallow marsh on the Potomac River and how the commercial waterfront evolved into this beautiful passive waterfront plan,” Cox said. “… I think we’ve saved enough of it to be able to use in the future – to explain to people what was there because the mill burned down in the late 19th century and we don’t have anything but Civil War photographs.”

Some Old Town residents are still concerned about how many of the stones will, ultimately, be saved. Yvonne Callahan, former president of the Old Town Civic Association, said residents felt there was a bait-and-switch on the part of EYA.

“I find it incredibly insulting, if that’s not too strong a word, that EYA told us they were going to use the stones in their new development, that some sort of respect for the past was shown, and now there’s a corporate decision that they’re just dirty old stones and that’s not the image we want,” Callahan said.

Residents first heard about this decision at a January waterfront meeting, Callahan
said. She praised the city’s efforts to find a solution quickly.

“The city has done a good job of jumping on this rather quickly, but my concern is how

Pioneer Mills foundations at the Robinson Landing construction site (Courtesy photo)

many have been saved and how many will be removed – I think that’s the critical question,” Callahan said. “It’s really too bad the city got stuck with a change of heart on the part of EYA and them giving precious little time to resolve the problem, but the city is clearly making strenuous efforts to preserve all of these stones.”

Burkhardt and Jackson said there’s still the opportunity to use historic material from the site in the ultimate Robinson Landing project. They said there are plans to incorporate stones from Hoe’s Warehouse, an 18th-century building, into the Robinson Landing landscape. The stone from Pioneer Mills was too large to incorporate in this way, they said.

“It’s great that the city’s been able to utilize this material at Point Lumley Park.
The stones have been there since the 19th century. It’s going to remain on the waterfront.
From the day it was first brought to the waterfront, it was covered. Now the foundation stones will be used along the shoreline,” Jackson said. “It’s exposed and people can see it
and touch it and can see the foundation blocks and the original stones.”

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