Little was saved when City Hall burned

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Little was saved when City Hall burned

September 22, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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The old Alexandria Washington Lodge No. 22 in the Market House, Court House and offices building that we now refer to as City Hall. The two desks were probably manufactured by the Green & Bros Steam Furniture Works, due to their similarity with the Green desks made for City Council in 1871.

Alexandrians have been concerned about fires ever since they started erecting structures. Most 18th century buildings were constructed of wood and easily ignited with open fires for cooking and manufacturing. As archaeologists, we find only the charred remains of these fires. The broken ceramics may be darkened, the wood objects may only survive as brittle fragments. We also can define in the soil ashy, black levels which distinguish the fire episode from the other living periods of a site. 

But often a family's possessions and home were consumed by fire. In essence, then, little material evidence survived fires except archaeological remains. The Green Furniture Fire of 1827 ( Gazette Packet August 18, 1994) engulfed fifty-three buildings, but we do have a few archaeological artifacts from the cabinetmaker's shop that were discarded after the fire in a privy well.

Fire also provided an opportunity for rebuilding and modernization. The Alexandria Gazette reported that at 12:30 A.M. on May 19, 1871, "the alarm was instantly sounded" when the Market House and Public Offices were discovered on fire. Constructed in 1785 and 1817, the two market House structures on Cameron and Royal streets were reduced to "a mass of charred and blackened walls and embers." As the steeple with the old town clock fell it was "shrouded in a sheet of fire, its spire toppled, leaned, bended downward, and hung suspended until was consumed."

The townspeople viewed this event as a major disaster and mourned the loss of the clock's familiar face. The relics in the City Museum were destroyed in a resounding fashion--a bomb-shell exploded and several old loaded muskets went off in the heat. The Alexandria Washington Lodge No. 22 of the Masons also was lost, but their precious artifacts such as George Washington's chair were saved. The fire was also a fiscal disaster, since the City had refurbished the buildings only the year before.

Soon thereafter the City held a design competition for a new public building and market house. Adolph Cluss submitted the winning design which today now stands on the Market Square block. The Green & Bros. Steam Furniture Works provided desks and chairs for the new City Hall, according to Oscar Fitzgerald, Director of the Naval Museum and Board of Architectural Review member.

Two of these desks, which were probably for the City Council members in the Chamber, still remain in Alexandria. The collections of Fort Ward Museum and the Lyceum each include one of the Green desks. The George Washington Masonic National Memorial has two desks in their Lodge Replica Room which may be ascribed to the Green factory. These desks appear in a historic photograph of the Lodge and were used by the secretary and treasurer. Jack Riddell, Curator of the Replica Room, reports that the Memorial has two other similar desks. The Lyceum's desk is also on exhibit. While the 1871 fire destroyed Alexandria's public buildings and objects, it also set the stage for a new structure and furnishings which we consider to be historic today.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist