How The Historic Alexandria Foundation Maintaining Our City's Character

How The Historic Alexandria Foundation Maintaining Our City's Character

brought to you by McGlaughin Ryder Investments

story by  DAWN KLAVON


Alexandria is an extraordinary city. Set on the banks of the Potomac River — a hop, skip and jump away from the nation’s capital — residents, businesses and tourists alike are drawn to it for its meticulously preserved architecture, rich history and charm.

And the world is taking notice. Alexandria was voted a Condé Nast Traveler Top 5 Best Small City in the US 2022 and one of Travel + Leisure’s Best Cities in the US 2022.

Alexandria is a city that exudes charm and uniqueness at every turn, from the cobblestone streets to the historic architecture, every corner tells a story. - Colleen Gallagher, President + CEO of HAF

On top of its beauty and appeal, Alexandria has held a unique place in American history for centuries. Founded in 1749, this extraordinary town has served as a tobacco trading post, a busy port, a part of the District of Columbia and home to the country’s largest slave-trading firm and a large free-black community, according to Alexandria’s Old Town Crier. In addition, Alexandria was a Civil War supply center for Union troops and a street-car suburb for federal workers. The best part is, many buildings erected centuries ago still stand today, adding to the city’s charm and character.

“Alexandria is a city with a rich history and it is this architectural and cultural history that makes it such an attractive place to live, work and visit,” says Brian Branton, board member for the Historic Alexandria Foundation (HAF). “By preserving our historic buildings and sites, we are not only maintaining its unique character and charm, but we are also sustaining Alexandria for generations to come.”

HAF, a non-profit organization, believes Alexandria’s continued economic development is the direct result of tourists, businesses and residents coming to the city as a result of its rich history and character.

"Alexandria is a city that exudes charm and uniqueness at every turn, from the cobblestone streets to the historic architecture, every corner tells a story,” says Colleen Gallagher, President and CEO of OnWrd & UpWrd Marketing and Communications, based in Alexandria. “OnWrd & UpWrd offers PR and marketing services, which ultimately all comes back to storytelling. I couldn't think of a better backdrop than Alexandria for us to both gain inspiration from and to call home for our company."

Residents embrace the rich history and charm of Alexandria and are drawn to live its colonial roots.

“It’s always nice to see signs from the past around town,” says Tess York, an Alexandria resident for over four decades. “Whether it’s an old horse post or a historic plaque on a house, I have friends whose families have lived here for 150 years!”

HAF’s noble mission reverberates with visitors to Alexandria, who respond to the preservation efforts that take place. Education and advocacy, says Branton, are the fundamental cornerstones of preserving the past.

“Preservation allows for the city to recognize its past and acknowledge the contributions of those who came before us,” he says. “If we strip it of the very things that make it special, we rip out the very heart of Alexandria.”


Advocating for Historic Preservation

HAF acts as a catalyst for private-sector community preservation action in conjunction with other like-minded community organizations, according to their website. Examples of these would be Alexandria’s neighborhood citizen associations: the Alexandria Association and the Alexandria Historical Society. Receiving government funding for preservation means competing with many other spending priorities. As a result, the private sector is more important than ever in playing a substantive role.

“Preservation allows for the city to recognize its past and acknowledge the contributions of those who came before us. " - Brian Branton

One way to embrace and preserve Alexandria’s history is for residents to do a deep dive and investigate their own home for historical significance. On their website, HAF advises residents to learn about the community and the old house in which they live. Fortunately, a plethora of resources are available to help in the quest, starting with the HAF publication and Historic Alexandria: Street by Street. The latter includes a brief history of the city and summarizes what has been gleaned from deed research on many old buildings in downtown Alexandria, according to HAF.

For residents interested in finding out more about the historic roots of their abode, archives at the Alexandria Public Library and online may prove helpful. Being cognizant of education and preservation opportunities is a great first step, says Branton.

“Historic preservation is only accomplished by our community coming together to take action,” Branton says. “People can simply become a member of HAF and help provide financial support, they can attend our fun parties where we not only raise much-needed funds but also awareness of the work of HAF or volunteer to help with some of our preservation efforts in the city.”

Historic Plaque Program

Take a stroll down most streets in Old Town and you’ll see historic plaques on some of the buildings, created by HAF.

HAF’s Historic Plaque Program was initiated during the 1960s, based upon a similar program in Philadelphia of marking historic structures that were threatened with demolition and thereby raising public awareness of surviving early buildings, according to Branton.

“Today, our 800 historic plaques are our most visible link and we encourage all residents who live in eligible structures to apply for a historic plaque to preserve it for future generations,” says Branton.

HAF’s objective is to increase the number of plaques on qualifying properties in Alexandria. HAF notes that plaques may be awarded after an inspection by an independent consulting architect or architectural historian. Qualifying criteria includes that the building must be at least 100 years old, as documented by a combination of records (title search, tax records, wills, etc.). Also, the principal facades of the building visible from the street or any public right of way must maintain integrity of form, including materials and architectural features consistent with the dominant period of the building, according to the HAF.

Making a Difference

The work of HAF is evident throughout Alexandria and, according to Branton, vital.

“We are one of the first foundations in the country focused on historic preservation, including ones in Charleston and New Orleans. Each of these cities are special because they have worked to preserve their past,” he said. “If the HAF were to disappear, we would lose our biggest support to preserving the very character of what makes it special and, as a result, policymakers and developers who are focused more on building new structures and developing new areas would become the only voice in the room.”

The good news is that HAF’s voice is getting louder in the community. Since its founding in 1954, the non-profit group has protected and preserved irreplaceable buildings and artifacts associated with Alexandria through effective advocacy. HAF also awards resources to non-profits, associations, local museums and individuals to preserve Alexandria’s history. For example, in 2022, HAF awarded $100,000 to the Murray-Dick-Fawcett House for a historic structures report.

It is important to remember the people and events that shaped our community and to honor their legacy.

For a nominal $35 fee, proponents of the work of HAF can sign up on the organization's website to become members, fortifying the work of preserving historic architecture and protecting priceless landmarks throughout the city.

Preserving a Legacy

HAF endeavors to preserve the unique history of Alexandria for generations to come. By protecting the city’s colorful past, HAF hopes to influence its future.

“It is important to remember the people and events that shaped our community and to honor their legacy,” says Branton. “By doing so, we foster a stronger sense of community pride and identity as residents come together to share their shared history. Our work makes for a stronger community.”


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