History of Gadsby's Tavern Museum
Gadsby's Tavern Museum consists of two buildings, a ca. 1785 tavern and the 1792 City Tavern and Hotel. In those seven short years, the young Republic began to take shape through the conversations and choices being made in these tavern spaces. The impact of these choices about how far to extend power—political, economic, and social—are still being felt today.
Named for Englishman John Gadsby who operated them from 1796 to 1808, the tavern businesses were central to Alexandria’s port-based economy, offering spaces to dine, entertain, and spend the night. A large, enslaved labor force made Gadsby’s renowned hospitality possible. Notable patrons that enjoyed this hospitality included George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette. The most well-known event was the Birthnight Ball, when Washington celebrated his birthday in 1798 and 1799.
After serving as a tavern and hotel during the Civil War and into the late 19th century, the buildings were used for variety of commercial uses and soon fell into disrepair. In 1917, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased the historic woodwork of the City Tavern Ballroom because of its Washington connection to include in their new American Wing. Twelve years later, American Legion Post 24 purchased the buildings, saving them from demolition, and undertook a community-wide restoration effort. In 1972, the buildings were donated to the City of Alexandria, restored again, and re-opened in 1976 for America’s Bicentennial Celebration.
Though the buildings were saved due to the taverns’ connections to famous guests, the Museum now tells the story of all people who interacted with the spaces as they negotiated daily life in the early United States.
Tour the Museum
Museums guests can walk through the buildings at their own pace and immerse themselves in the stories of the tavern or enjoy the interaction of a guided tour that delves into the complexity of the times. Results of ongoing research are seen through the exhibits and restorations, presenting the place and stories of people who worked or gathered in these buildings and their impact from the 18th century to today. Tour the museum online or plan your visit in person.
Historic Ice Well
The Ice Well is visible outside of the museum and offers a glimpse into early Alexandria’s commercial and social history. An important and rare example of a commercial well in an urban environment, it provided the tavern with a ready supply of ice to cool beverages or help make the new dessert of the day, ice cream.
History of the Birthnight Ball
As George Washington’s hometown, Alexandria hosted numerous events for the General but none as famous as the Birthnight Ball. The first public celebration of Washington's birthday was at Valley Forge during the winter of 1778 on February 22. In Alexandria, the first was in 1780; however, Washington did not attend one in Alexandria until the Birthnight Balls at John Gadsby’s City Tavern in 1798 and 1799. Even after Washington’s death, the Birthnight Ball tradition continued, and we still gather to honor his contributions to our nation today. Learn about the history of the Birthnight Ball and how you can bring elements home to your celebration.
Exploring topics related to the tavern’s history, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum offers a number of primary and secondary sources online:
- Rates of Liquors & Overview
- Mutual Assurance Map, 1796
- Tavern Bill of Sale, 1801
- Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 1808
- Irwin Family Archival Collection: funded by the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum Society
- George Washington and the Birthnight Ball
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchases Gadsby’s Ballroom
- John Gadsby beyond Alexandria
- The Civil War at Gadsby’s
- The Story of the Female Stranger
- Honoring our Veterans: A Century of Service - The American Legion in Alexandria
- A Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow
- O Say Can You See? Stories from the National Museum of American History Blog: Where did Francis Scott Key write the song that became our national anthem?
- the memory palace Podcast: If You Have to be a Floor
- Twisted Preservation One Night Stand Blog: Leaving Crumbs Behind
The Collection of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum is wide and varied. From ceramics to furniture, each object tells the story of the evolution of hospitality in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Photographic Collection documents the tavern’s 20th century journey from run-down buildings to world-class museum.