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The Alexandria Waterfront Battle is Nothing New

Posted on Jan 14,2012
Filed Under News , Community,

Courtesy Photo <br />The 1924 four-oared gig crew with new ODBC rowing uniforms, including, left to right, Benny Minor, Tom Hulfish Sr., Park Bell and Happy Whitten.
Courtesy Photo
The 1924 four-oared gig crew with new ODBC rowing uniforms, including, left to
right, Benny Minor, Tom Hulfish Sr., Park Bell and Happy Whitten.

By Chuck Hagee
ALEXANDRIA,VA.-As the controversial Alexandria Waterfront Plan continues to percolate, one of the most volatile elements of that plan continues to hold its ground -- to the consternation of some and the pleasure of others. It is the Old Dominion Boat Club, located at the foot of King Street on the Potomac River since 1923 after acquiring the site in 1921. The club was formally organized in September 1880 and established its first headquarters on May 1, 1881.

Photo by Jim T. Brown <br />The Old Dominion Boat Club today.
Photo by Jim T. Brown
The Old Dominion Boat Club today.

As part of the City's efforts to create a so-called pedestrian waterfront, there have been suggestions and legal attempts to remove ODBC from its present location or, at the very least, to acquire its private parking lot immediately south of the clubhouse. That possibility remains on the table.
The original clubhouse site was on The Strand between Prince and Duke Streets. According to Deed Book #9, the property was leased for "$50 per year for a period of five years."
It was then purchased by the club on August 28, 1883, "and served as the clubhouse until it was destroyed by fire on the morning of March 21,1922." ODBC's fire was preceded by another on the Alexandria waterfront that same night.
That other fire engulfed the Old Alexandria Washington Ferry Company building at 1 King St. Ironically, it was that very building that ODBC was planning to utilize as their new headquarters following its purchase by the club in May of 1921.
During the ODBC fire that night, "all boats and shells were destroyed, and $16,000 in damage occurred," according to the club's history. Although arson was expected in both cases, no one was ever caught and charged. There was speculation that the fires were in retaliation for the boat club's refusal to allow bootleggers to use their facilities to bring whiskey from Maryland to Virginia.
However, this did not deter the ODBC membership from going forward with their plans for the new headquarters. Construction of the new facility commenced January 1923 and the first membership meeting was held in the new structure on June 12, 1923.
At that time the club had a membership of only 75. Now their rolls stand in excess of 700. In addition to a who's who of Alexandrians, the membership has included a number of national notables including the late Arthur Godfrey, Virginia Governor Westmoreland, and an array of members of Congress.

Courtesy Photo <br />An early photo when the new building was erected in 1923.
Courtesy Photo
An early photo when the new building was
erected in 1923.

ODBC was founded not only as a boat club, but also as a physical fitness club. It held its first regatta on the Potomac in 1885 and launched Alexandria's high school rowing club in 1947. The T.C. Williams rowing team operated from the ODBC before they had their own boathouse and the school officially inaugurated rowing in 1971, according to ODBC records.
But, ODBC is not just about boating, it is heavily involved in both charitable causes and community services as well as athletics and water related activities. From the 1920's through the 1940's the club had its own competitive basketball team which is captured in photos on the club's walls.
Throughout the years its charitable and civic involvements have included:

  • Providing "needed infrastructure" for security forces in the use of docks and boat ramps as well as for fire and rescue personnel
  • A long history of sponsoring Salvation Army Christmas Bell Ringing
  • A program for special needs children
  • Donations to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Make A Wish Foundation of Virginia, and the Virginia 9/11 Fund

The parking lot, immediately adjacent to the south side of the clubhouse, used as a boat launch site by members and periodically by the Alexandria Fire Department, was purchased by the club in 1935 from the widow of Fred Wagar for $2,000. It is this piece of land that has been the primary source of contention between ODBC and the City.
In order to protect this property in a legal battle a fee assessment was "put upon each member to help defray costs of land contention with the City," according ODBC records.
A 1979 historical entry reads, "City of Alexandria takes over Club property on south side from Strand to the river even though it was the Club which decades ago filled in the open water area of the old ferry slip which terminated at The Strand. City had too much clout for the Club to combat."
But, the City was also in a contest with the Federal Government, through the National Park Service, which proposed taking over the entire waterfront as a continuation of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. This would have eliminated all waterfront development and removed it from City control.
In order to prevent this, the City agreed to create the Board of Architectural Review based on the Charleston, SC, model. The U.S Park Service, in turn, agreed to accept Washington Street as a George Washington Memorial Parkway link with certain conditions giving it a say in future development along the length of Washington Street. ODBC also reclaimed control of its property on The Strand to Wales Alley.
That control is maintained by The Strand being closed one night each year with the City's blessing. ODBC members remain on the site overnight to reaffirm their ownership and satisfy legal requirements.
Although, the removal of the ODBC headquarters building is not presently in contention as part of the present Waterfront Plan chess game, the parking lot/boat launch remains in the City's acquisition crosshairs. Proving once again, Alexandria history is never static.

Reprinted from the Zebra January 2012.

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