Close to Home: The legacy of a historic Old Town home

Close to Home: The legacy of a historic Old Town home
The Mueller’s home on South Royal Street is home to many flags and a beautiful red finish. (Courtesy photo)

Wafir Salih |

Wendy and Mark Mueller are seeking to honor their home’s African American heritage with a commemorative plaque by a local historical society.

The couple’s Old Town home on South Royal Street was once the residence of William Waugh, a 19th century freed African American cooper, a professional in making wooden casks and barrels. The area during that time period was part of the Hayti community, one of the first African American neighborhoods in Alexandria.

Wendy, born in Massachusetts, but a Virginian since age 12, said her dad worked for The Hartford, a Fortune 500 insurance company, which brought its offices to Old Town in the 1980s. It was one of the first major businesses in the area, as larger offices and corporations began to establish their presence.

Mark, a native Texan and seasoned “Army brat,” moved 18 times growing up, even living in Europe for five years. His mother worked at Christ Church and his dad served in the Army.

In 1995, Wendy and Mark began their life together in Alexandria, initially residing on Church Street until 1998. Their home overlooked the highway and boasted a clear view, prior to the wall being built that now obstructs the highway view.

“I could do the traffic report from our rooftop patio,” Wendy recalled with a laugh.

“We would sometimes at 2 o’clock hear [a crash] and we’d call 911 [to report] a major accident on the inter-section,” Mark added.

From there, the couple moved to South St. Asaph Street where they lived briefly. In 1999, the couple stumbled upon their current house around Thanksgiving.

“It was on the market, and it was empty,” Mark said. “We liked the paint color; it was a China white trim. And we’re like ‘Man, wouldn’t it be great if one day we could afford this type of thing?’”

The following January, the couple went on a three-week trip, where they toured the Middle East. When they returned, they found the house still on the market and decided to buy it.

“We came back from that trip, and we’re like, ‘Hey, the house is still on the market. Maybe we can get it,’” Mark said.

When speaking with a realtor prior to purchasing the property, they learned that the house was home to Waugh in the 19th century.

“The realtor brought it up. She said, ‘This is the home of the first freed slave.’ … But she might have been taking her [creative] liberties,” Mark said.

McArthur Myers, an Alexandrian citizen and member of the Alexandria African American Heritage Trail Committee, said the Quaker community at the time gave opportunities to free Black Alexandrians.

“The Quakers named it Hayti after Tossaint L’Ouverture [who served] down in the Haiti Revolution, with the concept of giving the Black folks an association and connection to freedom,” Myers said.

In the Alexandria Archaeology booklet, “Across the fence but a world apart” by T.B. McCord Jr., a map details the residences of free African Americans that lived on South Royal Street, with Waugh’s house placed exactly where the Muellers live. Mark, who has owned the booklet since 2001, said he frequently revisits it.

Myers said the history laid out in the booklet is a testament to how historically rich the house and surrounding neighborhood is.

“Alexandria has always been a cosmopolitan city, you know. To know Alexandria history, you can know American history, because it goes to colonial, pre-revolutionary war, post-revolutionary war, to the Articles of Conflict,” Myers said.

Mark discussed the possibility of obtaining a commemorative plaque for homes with significant African American history, given that a new sign was placed recently by the African American Heritage Trail Committee near the neighborhood recognizing the Hayti community.

The facade of the house has a vibrant red finish, showcasing its folk Victorian style. Given the positioning of the house being along the street, the family has a front-row seat to the annual President’s Day parade.

The 2,350 square foot layout of the house lends itself to a more lateral space, with less need to go up and down the stairs. When walking in, a small living room on the right greets visitors, with a sprawling wooden staircase on the left that leads to the upstairs section of the home.

Down the hall, there’s the dining room, where the couple said they’ve held many Christmas dinners. The wall by the dining table has a painting of flowers stacked on top of each other, with the detailed texture work of the paint providing a nice ‘pop’ effect. The piece is by Michigan artist Barbara Spraul, which the couple commissioned after seeing Spraul’s work at the Alexandria Art Festival.

The kitchen has a very classic look to it, with its rustic hardwood floors and cherry-stained cupboards.

Beyond the kitchen, the backyard outside boasts a dark blue fountain in the shape of a lion. The backyard is also home to several roses, as well as a garden with a couple of apple and kiwi trees planted. Mark said he’s working to install a wall of tomato plants with a telescopic ladder so he can tend to them.

Descending downstairs into the house, the utility basement houses a laundry room alongside storage space. On the upstairs level, there are four bedrooms, including their daughter’s bedroom and the expansive primary bedroom positioned further along the hall.

As the house is undergoing renovations, Mark said he plans to install solar panels on the roof, as well as a car charger in the backyard. By the time he’s done, the house will be able to go off-the-grid.

Reflecting on their 24 years of family life in their historic home, Wendy expressed hope for her daughter’s future appreciation of her upbringing as she heads to college.

“We’re raising our daughter here, and I hope she appreciates it when she looks back,” Wendy said.