By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
The Historic Alexandria Homes Tour will appeal to anyone who has ever been curious about what it’s like inside the opulent and distinctive houses in the core of Old Town.
The tour will feature six homes when it returns for its 78th year on Saturday, including three homes with a connection to notable Alexandrian William McVeigh. The homes featured on the tour vary in time period – two are 18th century, two are 19th century and two are 20th century – and in decor, from Federal to traditional to modern. All homes will open their first floor for display and two will open their upstairs living areas for visitors. One home will also display its basement, a custom wine cellar with space for 2,000 bottles.
“They get access to the homes they walk around Old Town and look at,” Beverly Polizzi, co-chair of the 78th Historic Alexandria Homes Tour, said. “There’s got to be some kind of curiosity. What does someone in the 21st century do in a home on a cobblestone street that has a gas lamp outside and a [historic] plaque?”
The event is a long-standing tradition in Old Town and for The Twig, the Junior Auxiliary of Inova Alexandria Hospital. The event began as an informal fundraiser, with members of the Twig opening their homes and neighbors’ homes to the public over the course of one day in exchange for a $1 admission fee. The tour has streamlined in the decades since and now takes place between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. during the fourth Saturday of September. All proceeds of the event, including ticket sales and sponsorship, benefit Inova Alexandria.
The addresses of the homes aren’t disclosed until the day of the tour, but all homes featured on the tour are east of Washington Street and bounded by Prince Street to the south and Princess Street to the north. Together, the six homes create a one-mile walking tour.
“Some of these homes have extensive histories,” Michele Cumberland, co-chair of the tour, said. “We have a home that has some unique and interesting features, but also has an extensive modern art collection. Another one of our homeowners is a descendent of [the extended] James Madison [family].”
The two 18th-century homes on the tour, one of which is a McVeigh house, also have ties to the family of George Washington – one was owned by Washington, while one was owned by his half-brother, Augustine Washington. One of the houses was subdivided into five apartments in the early 20th century and slowly restored into a single-family dwelling by two subsequent owners. The other, built sometime in the mid-1700s, has original pine flooring, fireplace mantels, cupboards and paneling.
Another one of the homes was built by William McVeigh and originally owned by his brother, James McVeigh. In addition to its famous owner and builder, the home features a number of other interesting historical touches, including a window that was etched in by two women, likely sometime in the 19th century. The home also features original floorboards, fireplaces and woodwork.
One featured home is located on a rare-for-Old Town double lot that the original owner built on in the late 19th century. It was slowly added to by a subsequent owner in the early 20th century. The house’s ample natural light is accentuated by stained glass windows.
The other two homes featured on the tour were both built in the 20th century, but are situated on historic properties. One features a saltwater pool, while the other, which was completely rebuilt about a decade ago, features plentiful and personal pieces of art, many of which harken back to the origins of the owner’s interesting life, decades of which were spent abroad.
“In one of them, you’ll see not-quite-18th-century antiques and more traditional colors. … Some of the others, they have modernized, but you can tell it’s an old home. They have the baseboards and the cornices and the baseboards on the ceiling; they all have the original flooring,” Polizzi said.
Polizzi and Cumberland said it’s the lived-in features that make the homes tour special. It’s not the same experience as you get in a museum – it’s a realistic look at how people are living in older homes.
“They’re not necessarily period accurate and that’s part of the fun, to see what they do with it,” Cumberland said.
Every home on the tour has been matched with a florist who is working with the homeowner to create an arrangement that is compatible with the owner’s personality and the home’s decor. The day of the tour, each room will be staffed by docents, the majority of which are Twig members, who will walk visitors through the history and interesting points of each room.
Though the homes tour has traditionally been a hyperlocal event, Polizzi and Cumberland said the homes tour is also a regional event that’s fun for both those who are familiar with Alexandria’s history and those who aren’t.
What is a McVeigh home?
During the early years of Alexandria, owners were required to build on plots of land within two years or forfeit their ownership. As a result, many owners opted to build “Flounder” homes, homes with one tall side, one short side and only one roof line. These homes could be built more quickly.
Brothers William Newton McVeigh and James Harvey McVeigh purchased many lots during the 19th century, sometimes acquiring lots with several smaller buildings. William McVeigh often combined the buildings into one structure, creating a “curved wall” that connected the front of the house to a house that was originally a Flounder. The two structures were connected by a “hyphen” hallway with double doors. Curved walls remain a signature of McVeigh homes in Old Town.
As for the McVeigh brothers, they were divided by the Civil War, like many families. William sided with the Confederacy, while James sided with the Union. Once the war ended, William lost his properties due to the Confiscation Act. William and James’ relationship also never fully recovered.