History of Gadsby's Tavern Museum

Learn of the centuries of history at this corner of N. Royal and Cameron Streets.

Page updated on Jun 3, 2021 at 2:32 PM

History of Gadsby's Tavern Museum

JohnGadsby 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.

Learn More 

Exploring topics related to the tavern’s history, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum offers a number of primary and secondary sources online:

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources


Revolutionary War Symposium

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum highlights the complexity of early America, but these challenges and uncertainties were rooted in what transpired before and during the Revolutionary War. Explore topics with public historians of the early American story during a one-day symposium in partnership with Emerging Revolutionary War. 

Hindsight is 2020: Misconceptions of the Revolution
2021 Symposium
Originally presented May 22, 2021

In preparation for the 250th anniversary of 1776, public historians share their research into this turbulent time during a one-day symposium in partnership with Emerging Revolutionary War. Gadsby’s Tavern Museum highlights the complexity of early America, but these challenges and uncertainties were rooted in what transpired before and during the Revolutionary War. 

The play list includes six videos, with five speakers and a panel discussion.



Before they were Americans: A Prologue to the Revolutionary War 

2019 Symposium
Originally presented  September 28, 2019

This three-part symposium is available for viewing on C-Span.

Boston and the Road to Revolution, 1770-1775:  Historian, park ranger, and author Phillip Greenwalt gave an illustrated talk on Boston’s role in the origins of the Revolutionary War. Mr. Greenwalt organized his talk around three pivotal events: the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party and the Battles of Lexington and Concord. This talk is a part of a symposium co-hosted by the “Emerging Revolutionary War” blog, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum and the Lyceum of Alexandria, Virginia.

Revolutionary War Era Clothing and Tailors:  Scholar and curator Katherine Egner Gruber used images to describe the significance of tailors in 18th century Alexandria, Virginia. Examining the account book of tailor William Carlin, who was active between 1763 and 1782, Gruber argued that men’s clothing was important in reflecting meaningful moments in citizen’s lives and helped prepare the community for revolution. The “Emerging Revolutionary War” blog, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum and the Lyceum of Alexandria, Virginia co-hosted this event. 

Origins of the American Revolution: This is the closing session from a symposium on the first annual Emerging Revolutionary War symposium. A panel of historians summarized their thoughts from the day and discuss various aspects of the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. The “Emerging Revolutionary War” blog, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum and the Lyceum of Alexandria, Virginia co-hosted this event. 


Collections 

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.


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