Today's City Hall: rebuilt after 1871 fire
September 29, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey
Last week I discussed that fires have at least two consequences. They eradicate the old and create the opportunity for new. Although we look at City Hall on the Market Square block as old, it was built in the aftermath of the 1871 fire.
Penny C. Morrell, author of "Who Built Alexandria?", last year wrote about the development of Market Square for the Alexandria Historical Society's publication "The Alexandria Chronicle".
The first town hall/schoolhouse was built at the corner of North Fairfax and Cameron Streets as early as 1759. An early drawing depicts the structure as two-story brick with a gabled roof. The jail may have been built even earlier on Cameron Street, as was the Market House.
By 1785 the Masonic Lodge had built another story to the Market House for its use, and by 1817 a new Market House was constructed along Royal Street facing Gadsby's Tavern. Extensive renovations occurred in 1869 to the Cameron Street Market House and Masonic Lodge. After the 1871 fire, the current structure seen on Cameron and North Fairfax and Royal streets was constructed.
Adoph Cluss's specifications used "advanced machine-made products" such as cast iron columns, brick with concrete footings, and pressed brick exterior with cast iron trim. The Second Empire style U-shape building contained a variety of government services. The police and fire companies were in the east wing (Fairfax Street side). The courts occupied the northeast, and the city offices were in the north and west.
In 1871, elected officials served in two branches. One branch was called the Common Council with 4 members elected from each of the 4 wards annually. The Board of Aldermen had 2 people from each ward elected every two years. Alexandrians also elected a mayor.
We do not know how the Council Chambers looked during this period. There are no photographs and only two pieces of furniture survive to our knowledge. The small desks at the Fort Ward Museum and the Lyceum appear to be the last remnants of this period of government. Apparently, each official sat at his own desk, which was manufactured by the local Green & Bros. Steam Furniture Works.
The matching desks in an Eastlake transitional style had small sloping tops, indicating that they held far less paper than City Council members need to read today. The year 1871 was a momentous one with election of the first two African Americans to local government. We are fortunate that the desks survived in the attic of City Hall. The Lyceum desk was restored by the Alexandria Rotary in the memory of Robert Whitton. For information about how you can preserve your furniture, call Fort Ward Museum at 703-838-4848 to reserve your place in the home care of collectibles lecture series starting October 15.
Common Council or Alderman desk manufactured by Green & Bros. for the new City Hall constructed after the 1871 fire. Photo Credit: Fort Ward Museum.