Alexandria's History: The 20th and 21st Century
A Brief History
New neighborhoods sprang up around the outskirts of the city by the turn of the twentieth century. Local industries included the Robert Portner Brewing Company, the Old Dominion glass works, the Virginia Marine Railway and Shipbuilding Company, and Potomac Yard, one of the largest rail facilities in the country. The U.S. Naval Torpedo Station, now the Torpedo Factory Art Center, was built during World War I and was expanded during World War II, with large industrial buildings dominating Alexandria's waterfront. A Ford Motor Company warehouse at the south end of the waterfront was also converted to military use during World War II.
The Second World War brought tremendous growth and change to the Washington area and to northern Virginia. National Airport was constructed at the beginning of the war on Alexandria's northern edge, the former site of Abingdon plantation. Thousands of people from all over the country poured into the region as the government expanded and Alexandria became one of many "bedroom communities" serving the capital city. This growth set the tone for the post-war period, as well, which has seen even greater development of Alexandria and her surrounding communities.
Today, Alexandria still retains much of its historic character. Many late 18th- and early 19th-century townhouses and warehouses remain in the "Old Town" section of the city, along the west bank of the Potomac River. While still a residential area for many Federal employees, Alexandria is also home to many national associations, corporations, restaurants, shops and other businesses. Many old landmarks have become museums, historic sites and art galleries. Public parks line the waterfront and the river is actively used by fishermen and recreational boaters.
The 21st century has seen increased density around Metro stations and the replacement of some low-income housing projects with mixed-income housing. A third Metro station and Virginia Tech's Innovation Campus are coming to Potomac Yard, and plans are in place to move Inova Alexandria Hospital to the site of the old Landmark Mark, as the anchor of a mixed-use development. With the Robinson Landing and Old Dominion Boat House projects, the City has finally realized its long-term goal to complete a public walkway all along the waterfront.
Visitors to the National Capitol area find that Alexandria serves as a quaint change of pace from the hectic hustle of downtown Washington, a place to relax and discover what the region was like many years ago.
20th and 21st Century History
The African American Community
Alexandria's black population increased during and after the Civil War, as part of the Northern Migration. In the 20th century, African Americans formed vibrant communities, with social life often centered around their churches. As blacks across America fought for Civil Rights, the country's first Sit-Down Strike took place at the Alexandria Library in 1939. The historic African American community known as Uptown was designated as the Parker-Gray District in 1984, and it is now one of six Alexandria Historic Districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Freedom House Museum, once one of the largest slave trading companies in the country, was purchased by the City in 2020 and reopened to the public in 2022, with new exhibitions. This purchase allows the City to preserve and interpret this National Historic Landmark and ensure it is open to the public for future generations.
The Alexandria Community Remembrance Project (ACRP) is a city-wide initiative dedicated to helping Alexandria understand its history of racial terror hate crimes and to work toward creating a welcoming community bound by equity and inclusion. In 2022, the ACRP led Alexandria residents and Alexandria City High School students on a pilgrimage to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum. As a community, ACRP delivered soil to EJI, reflecting the lives of Alexandria’s two known lynching victims – Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas. The trip included tours with social justice activists and visits to Montgomery and Selma civil rights sites. It was an educational and meaningful experience for the 165 Alexandrians who made the journey.
Peaceful vigils, protests and other events took place in Alexandria during the first week in June, 2020 following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Alexandria Black History Museum began The Legacy of George Floyd Collecting Initiative, resulting in the Black Lives Remembered Collection and an online exhibit.
Alexandria Union Station
Alexandria Union Station, built in 1905, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Stop by the station to see interpretive exhibits, or to take the train.
The Covid-19 Pandemic
As we experience this unprecedented time in the history of our town and the world, the Office of Historic Alexandria is recording our City’s response by conducting oral histories and collecting select memories, objects and documents from across the Alexandria community.
Gerald Ford in Alexandria
Alexandria is honored to have been the home of Gerald R. Ford and his family for more than 20 years. Gerald Ford and his family moved to a rental property in Parkfairfax in 1951, when he was in his second term in Congress (R-Michigan). The family moved to their home at 514 Crown View Drive, in Alexandria’s Clover neighborhood, in the spring of 1955, where they remained until a few days after he became President of the United States.
Historic Commemorations in Alexandria
Historic Commemorations in Alexandria
Alexandria commemorates important anniversaries in the history of our country and our city.
Historic Preservation and Urban Renewal
By the 1920s, Alexandria was a quiet little southern town, but one with an especially rich heritage. Seeking to capitalize on this history and tap into the stream of tourists who traveled through Alexandria regularly on their way to Mount Vernon, local American Legion Post 24 purchased the old City Hotel as their headquarters and museum. The building had once been known as Gadsby's Tavern and had served a distinguished clientele including George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Fired by the same spirit that was guiding the restorations at Colonial Williamsburg, Gadsby's Tavern reopened to the public with a colonial costume ball in 1932, the bicentennial of Washington's birth. The American Legion's purchase and restoration of Gadsby's Tavern was part of the fledgling preservation movement beginning to take hold in Alexandria that later blossomed in the face of urban renewal in the 1960s.
During the mid-1960s, the City's leadership began to remake the old colonial port into a modern city as many of the oldest parts of town were redeveloped. Market Square, where public markets were held since the town's founding, was cleared of 18th- and 19th-century buildings except for the 1872 City Hall, and the block was excavated to hide a parking garage under the new Square. Across South Royal Street, most of the block was similarly demolished and excavated for a series of boutiques and retail stores named Tavern Square (the development being adjacent to Gadsby's Tavern.) As the wrecking balls swung, Alexandria's preservation movement grew, forcing city government to protect some of the community's landmarks. Among the buildings saved and restored during this period were The Torpedo Factory Art Center, The Lyceum and the Carlyle House, which joined Gadsby's Tavern in undergoing extensive renovations in time for the nation's Bicentennial in 1976.
The Old and Historic District, designated in 1946, was the third historic district in the United States, after Charleston and New Orleans. The historic African American community known as Uptown was designated as the Parker-Gray District in 1984, and in 2008 was approved for listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Learn more about Preservation in Historic Alexandria
The Old and Historic District was designated in 1946 to preserve Alexandria's early architecture, but, since that time, 20th century neighborhoods have also been recognized for their historic and architectural significance.
- Del Ray and the Town of Potomac. St. Elmo and Del Ray, two subdivisions platted in 1894, were joined together in 1908 to form the incorporated town of Potomac.
- Fairlington. Fairlington is on the National Register of Historic Places, as a notable example of community planning and publicly financed housing built for defense workers and their families during World War II. Learn more about this history of this community, from the Fairlington Historical Society.
- History of Parkfairfax. Parkfairfax was built during 1941 to 1943 to help alleviate the acute housing shortages resulting from the depression and World War II.
- A Study in Decentralized Living: Parkfairfax, Alexandria, Virginia, by Laura L. Bobeczko. Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Spring 1997
- Rosemont, located northwest of the Old and Historic District of Alexandria, adjacent to Alexandria's Union Station, is an unusually intact example of an early-twentieth century middle-class trolley suburb.
The Old City Market
The Farmers' Market has been in operation since 1751. The current City Hall building was constructed in 1871. The building was originally U-shaped around a central courtyard. Markets Stalls were located on the first floors of the west and north wings and in the courtyard. In 1967, as part of the Urban Renewal project, the City Hall building was enlarged and the current brick plaza and fountain were constructed.
You can still shop at the Old Town Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings, year round.
The Ramsay Homes and Public Housing
The Ramsey Homes, a former public housing project on North Patrick Street, is being replaced by a mixed income community with low-income and market-rate units. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requires actions to assess historic resources and to mitigate or resolve adverse effects. The documentation of the history and architecture of the Ramsey Homes was undertaken as part of this historic preservation process.
The Ramsey Homes were constructed in 1941-1942 by the United States Housing Authority (USHA) as permanent housing for African-American defense workers. Ramsey Homes housed 15 defense workers and their families during World War II and the Korean War. This was part of a large Federal plan to provide 26,206 units of wartime housing in the Washington metropolitan area.
Toward the end of the Korean War, the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority (ARHA) purchased the Ramsey Homes from the Federal Public Housing Authority, and the buildings served as affordable housing units from 1953 until 2018.
Alexandria was once home to the largest railroad switching yard on the east coast, the Waterfront was dominated by industry including the Torpedo Factory (now an Art Center) and a Ford Motor Plant, and streetcar lines connected new suburbs with the Nation's capital.
- Potomac Yard: History and Archaeology. Learn about the former rail switching yard. Oral Histories of Potomac Yard employees, Heritage Trail signs, and archaeological reports.
- The History of Potomac Yard: A Transportation Corridor through Time. By Francine W. Bromberg, Alexandria Archaeology. North Potomac Yard Small Area Plan. See Appendix III, page 103.
- The Alexandria Union Station, by Al Cox, AIA. Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Winter 1996.
- Flying the Capitol Way, Part I, by Kristin B. Lloyd. Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Winter 1997
- Flying the Capital Way, Part II, by Kristin B. Lloyd. Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Spring 1998.
- Before the Beltway; Streetcar Lines in Northern Virginia. Photographic exhibit from the Alexandria Library, Local History/Special Collections. Streetcar lines were in operation from 1892 until the 1940s.