Old map sheds light on Lee-Fendall House site
March 16, 1995
By Pamela Cressey
The 1796 map of the Lee-Fendall House at the corner of North Washington and “Oronoko” streets.
Map/courtesy Alexandria Archaeology
Sites, artifacts and archaeological moments of discovery stick in my mind. Some people remember desserts, some wines, some trips – I remember objects, especially those that come out of the dirt with an aura of the past still clinging to them.
In 1986, city archaeologists and volunteers began the excavation of one of the loveliest and most interesting historic sites in Alexandria, the Lee-Fendall House.
Located on the corner of Oronoco and North Washington Streets, the Lee-Fendall possesses a garden that is an oasis of serenity.
We were excited by the possibilities that the property presented. Think of the people who once lived there, and what they left behind! Fortunately, we were guided by the expertise of the site directors Marylin Burke and Sue Farr, and the house history written by T. Michael Miller.
The first step in conducting historical archaeological research is to locate documentary information about eh site. In this case, there was an abundance of data. We had to examine the facts, however, in a different manner than historians.
Archaeologists are interested in determining how a site developed over time. Even if the house dates to 1850, for instance, it may be that earlier structures, and even Indian activities, once occurred there.
We arranged the information about the Lee-Fendall House in a chronological progression, with special emphasis upon the people living there, not just the owners of the property. We also tried to identify maps that would show where different structures and activities had taken place on the property. One of the most important for our purposes was the Mutual Assurance Co. declaration plat map. This map dates to 1796 when Philip Richard Fendall was the owner of the house. A prominent Charles County, Md., attorney, Fendall built the house in 1785. He was a friend of George Washington, a merchant, and first president of the Bank of Alexandria.
The map shows nine structures and their dimensions. Although the map is not drawn to scale, the relationships between the buildings are probably correct. The map gives us an intimate glimpse into the spatial organization of the urban elite residence at the end of the 18th century.
The main house was joined by a kitchen and servants’ hall to form an L. The office faced Washington Street, while a series of wooden buildings were on the interior of the property – a dwelling (probably for slaves) and pigeon and rabbit houses. Thus, what now appears as a landscaped garden was a busy work place.
We began our investigation to unearth the remains of the Fendall period as well as later occupants. I will report the results of the findings in the next columns.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria city archaeologist.