Historic Ice Well

In 1792, local businessman John Wise capitalized on the location near the new Federal City by building the finest lodging facility in Alexandria; none were to rival the City Tavern. To secure the Tavern’s prominence, Wise sought to provide the finest amenities of the time, including a ready supply of ice.

Page updated on Jun 10, 2021 at 2:21 PM

The Alexandria Common Council granted Wise permission to build an icehouse underneath the corner of Royal and Cameron Streets in 1793 as part of his construction. For the previous four years, Wise had leased the Alexandria Inn and Coffee House at 201 N. Fairfax Street, which included an on-site icehouse. Perhaps this convenience in his earlier ventures convinced Wise of the importance to the hospitality industry of having a regular supply of ice. Wise saw into the future by including this important feature in his designs for Alexandria’s five-star hotel of the 18th century.

Ice harvesting was an expensive and time-consuming process. It was cut from the frozen Potomac River in the winter and hauled by cart to the City Tavern for storage.  Once in the well, the ice was formed into a solid mound and covered with straw to preserve it for use through the summer months.  Preserving ice was an on-going challenge in the late 18th century and an expensive venture. Therefore, ice was generally reserved for wealthy estate owners. George Washington records in his journals the trials and tribulations of trying to preserve ice. In Alexandria, many homes had interior ice pits to store small quantities of ice. Those lucky enough to have access to ice used it to chill beverages, preserve perishable foods, and even make a new popular dessert of the day: ice cream. This availability of ice at Gadsby’s Tavern helped to distinguish the establishment as one of the finest of its kind in the 18th century.

Linked directly to the Tavern basement by a brick-walled and vaulted tunnel, the ice well was also accessed by the tavern staff through a small hatch at street level. The City Tavern’s well is much larger than most urban residential ice wells, measuring over 17 feet in diameter and over 11 feet deep at the lowest excavation point. The well could store as much as 68 tons of ice, enough to supply the tavern and even the citizens of Alexandria. In 1805, when John Gadsby was leasing the tavern from John Wise, Gadsby advertised the sale of ice from the well, “ICE FOR SALE, Persons may be supplied with ice, at eight cents per pound on application to John Gadsby.”

The ice well is an important and rare example of a commercial well in an urban environment.  Most ice wells have been lost to “progress” as they have succumbed to office buildings, parking lots, and housing.  Examples still exist at Monticello, Montpelier, and Mount Vernon, but these were created for private and not commercial use.  Gadsby’s ice well tells the larger story of commerce and the evolution of hospitality.  It is a reminder to modern day travelers and residents of something we take for granted today – a ready supply of ice.  

In 1972, after the American Legion donated the Museum to the City of Alexandria, a major restoration effort was launched.  During this work, the ice well was excavated and stabilized.  A concrete cap was placed over the ice well to cover and protect the historic feature.   A section of the ice well was then removed to make the interior visible to the public through a glass cutaway section.  This work was done according to the highest professional standards of the time.

Ice Well Restoration Project

The goals of the ice well restoration project were to preserve the historic feature and improve the visitor’s ability to experience the ice well. A restoration team, including the museum director, preservation architects, and engineers, created a design that addressed both these points. 

Approved by the City’s Board of Architectural Review, the design stabilized the ice well’s interior, reduced moisture accumulation, and improved the ventilation of the space.  During the planning process, great attention was paid to improving a visitor’s ability to access, view, and understand the rarity and historical importance of the feature.  New viewing windows showcase the ice well’s interior. Open-plan seating provide an inviting atmosphere to those walking by day or night. New engraved signage explain the significance of the ice well in the tavern's heyday and the role it played in creating a pleasurable experience for many of the travelers visiting Alexandria at the turn of the 19th-century.  The entire project was completed within the same footprint of the past ice well viewing area.

The ice well restoration project has won three design awards - a testament to the value of the preservation of this historic landmark:

  • 2014 Gabriella Page Preservation Award - Preservation Virginia, Outstanding Preservation Project.
  • 2014 Merit Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation - Virginia Society AIA
  • 2013 Special Citation in Historic Resources - AIA DC

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