Alexandria was named for Scotsman John Alexander, who in 1669 purchased a site on the Potomac River for “Six thousand punds [ sic] of Tobacco and Cask.” The Virginia Assembly established a town there in 1749, and John West, Jr., surveyed the site and laid out the gridiron plan. Tradition holds that seventeen-year-old George Washington assisted him; local legend asserts that Washington planned the town. In July 1749, building lots were auctioned off from the town square. Streets carry the names of various English and Virginia worthies. Soon Alexandria became a major and prosperous center of pre- and post-Revolutionary commerce. George Washington owned a town house, and, depending on the source, he appears to have dined in almost every house in Old Town. In 1791, the District of Columbia absorbed Alexandria; the federal government ceded it back to Virginia in 1846. During the Civil War, Union troops occupied the town and used it as a base of operations.
In the twentieth century, during two world wars the city was a major munitions manufactory site, and on the waterfront large factories were constructed, of which only portions of one, the Torpedo Factory, remain. A selective historic preservation conscience began to develop as early as 1903, as the town began to identify itself as a home of George Washington and Robert E. Lee. As a result of a 1920s study, in September 1929 the Chamber of Commerce passed a recommendation that “the colonial style be adhered to wherever possible.” Additional studies through the 1930s and early 1940s led to the passage of a 1946 historic district preservation ordinance establishing an area in the heart of downtown, and an architectural review board—both of which proved to be controversial. The ordinance has been amended thirty-three times and threatened with repeal but although significant buildings have been lost, especially along King Street, overall the legislation has been effective in preserving an important legacy. In the late 1950s an urban renewal project envisioned demolishing sixty-four square blocks of Old Town. After preservationists opposed the plan the targeted area was scaled back to six blocks along King Street.
The city is the eleventh most dense in the United States, and significant new continues. Its 2000 population stood at 128,283. Although the mania for faux colonial may grate on some visitors, a respect for later nineteenth-century architecture has developed since the mid-1970s and, more recently, even for the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Colonial Revival. Alexandria maintains an overall cohesiveness along with a wealth of identified and researched eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings, of which only a representative sample can be included in this guide. Some of the buildings in the Old Town section display plaques or signs with dates; however, this information is not always accurate.
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