The following is the first in a series of excerpts we’ll feature from Robert Madison’s book, “Walking with Washington”.
Wise’s Tavern, 201 North Fairfax Street
As Alexandria grew into a city, taverns were among the most numerous establishments crowded in among the stores, warehouses, artisan shops, and homes of the busy little seaport. There were some fifty taverns here by 1800, and at least 270 people held tavern licenses in and around Alexandria during the city’s first sixty years. This early tavern, which was
“this flood of good news…gave abundant cause for rejoicing…the inhabitants of…
under construction in 1777, had several names, such as Bunch of Grapes Tavern and Globe Tavern. George Washington dined here at “Mr. Lyle’s new tavern” in 1785. Other tavern keepers at this site included George H. Leigh, John Wise, John Albert, and Peter Kemp. Washington met here with the directors of the Potomac Company, and dined here on a number of other occasions, including a celebration of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1778.
As he made his way to New York to be inaugurated as first President of the United States, Washington was first honored in his hometown at Wise’s Tavern on April 16, 1789. Alexandria Mayor Dennis Ramsay (1756-1810) gave a speech, written by Light Horse Harry Lee (1756-1818), that noted, “Our first and best of citizens must leave us; our aged must lose their ornament; our youth their model; our agriculture its improver; our commerce its protector; our poor their benefactor …Farewell! Go! And make grateful people happy, a people who will be doubly grateful when they contemplate this recent sacrifice for their interest.” It was at this reception that Ramsay addressed Washington as “Mr. President,” probably the first person to address the President of the United States in that manner. At this time, Washington was so short of ready cash that there was some question whether he would be able to travel to New York for the inaugural ceremonies. The problem was resolved when he borrowed 600 pounds from Alexandrian Richard Conway (d. c1804).
Birthday balls for George Washington were held here in 1792 and 1794. Washington’s last inspection of troops in Alexandria occurred when he attended Fourth of July festivities here in 1799. A contemporary account noted: “At eleven o’clock the Alexandria regiment, the company of Artillery and West End troops of horse paraded. The line was formed in Fairfax Street, where they were met by General Washington, when the lines again formed, and they were reviewed by him.”
This tavern illustrates graphically how early Alexandria was graded to eliminate the twenty-five to thirty foot bluff at the shore of the Potomac River and create landfill to extend the shoreline beyond Lee Street (then called Water Street). When constructed, the limestone foundation of this building was underground, and the brick “water table” would have been at about hip height.
Bob Madison is the author of "Walking with Washington" and vice president of the Alexandria Historical Society. The Alexandria Historical Society is dedicated to researching, recording, discussing, and publishing every aspect of Alexandria’s contributions to the Nation.
Alexandria Historical Society
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Alexandria, VA 22314