Colonel George Gilpin (1740-1813) completed this combined commercial and residential building, with shops below and living quarters above, in 1798. He also owned a large warehouse and wharf at the foot of Prince Street. Gilpin served as a member of the Fairfax Committee of Safety and the Fairfax Militia; in the Revolutionary troops with George Washington in the New Jersey Campaign and the Battle of Germantown; as a director of the Potomac Company, the Bank of Alexandria, and the Little River Turnpike Company; as first judge of the Orphan’s Court of Alexandria; as postmaster, collector of customs, and harbor master; as a participant with Washington in laying the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building; and as a pall bearer at George Washington’s funeral. Gilpin’s first and second wives, who were sisters, were cousins of Martha Washington. Gilpin himself was descended from the Washingtons of Westmoreland, England, and enjoyed a close relationship with George Washin gton. George Washington operated a large distillery near Mount Vernon, with five copper stills producing 11,000 gallons of corn and rye whiskey in 1799. George Gilpin was the distillery’s best customer, and he sold Washington’s whiskey here.
When Alexandria was founded, the shoreline of the Potomac River was a fifteen to twenty foot bluff just east of Lee Street (then called Water Street). Gilpin was the town’s leading surveyor, and he was responsible in large measure for the process of cutting down the bluffs and the grading which provided much of the landfill east of Lee Street.
An early owner of 202 and 204 King Street next door was Jonathan Swift (d.1824), a merchant who dined and lodged at Mount Vernon, participated with Washington in laying the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building, and walked in Washington’s funeral procession. Swift sold a wide variety of goods ranging from pistols, rat traps, and darning needles to shovels, dictionaries, psalm books, primers, and penknives. In later years, Swift served as a consular agent for at least nine countries. People who like conspiracy theories might like Robert A. Prather’s The Strange Case of Jonathan Swift and the Real Long John Silver (Morley, MO: Acclaim Press, 2007). Prather claims that Jonathan Swift owned secret silver mines in Kentucky, and that the Long John Silver character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is based on Alexandria’s Jonathan Swift. However, this writer finds Prather’s theory extremely hard to believe. Nevertheless, the book contains interesting tidbits about Swift, such as the fact that his
father was one of the “Indians” in the Boston Tea Party.
Behind Gilpin House, running from Lee Street to Fairfax Street, is Swift Alley (named after Jonathan Swift), a good example of the cobblestoned alleys that were so important in eighteenth century Alexandria. You can still see some of the outbuildings for the main buildings fronting on King Street, such as the stable of George Gilpin behind 208 King Street. If you look down Swift Alley from South Fairfax Street, the eighteenth-century warehouse behind the Burke & Herbert Bank parking lot (now a residence with the bricks painted yellow at 2 Swift Alley) was built around 1795 by Joseph Riddle and his partner, James Dall. More recently, this was once the home of Katie Couric.
(Adapted from Robert Madison’s Walking with Washington, available in Alexandria museum gift shops.)