Diva, businessman were historic home’s occupants

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

Page updated on Dec 11, 2015 at 1:24 PM
Alexandria Gazette Packet Logo

Diva, businessman were historic home’s occupants

March 30, 1995
By Pamela Cressey

GAZ9512 image
A photograph taken in the back yard of the Lee-Fendall House. E.E. Downham is at the far right (with dog Frank); Robert F. Downham is third from right.
Photo/courtesy Lee-Fendall House.
The Downhams moved into the property known as the Lee-Fendall House in 1906 after renovating the aging structure. Just as many people today take on the renovation of an older home, the newly married couple must have been excited about the prospects of occupying this illustrious corner. They replaced the roof, put on new shingles, painted, and even put in a modern bathroom, according to T. Michael Miller’s history of the site. During the renovation Mrs. Mai Downham’s brother, William Greenwell, lived in the house.

Robert and Mai Downham were interesting individuals, as was Robert’s father, Emanuel E. Downham. Robert ran a saloon at 130 N. Fayette St. before his marriage, and later continued his father’s wholesale liquor business; E.E. also had operated a distillery near the gas house on North Lee Street between Oronoco and Princess. Robert had grown up at 411 N. Washington St., just two doors away from the Lee-Fendall House.

Robert had to change the direction of his business in 1915 with Prohibition in Virginia. Opening a haberdashery at King and Pitt Streets (the Holiday Inn corner) apparently permitted him to continue in business. He was active in the Shriners and Knights Templar, and also assisted in raising funds for the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.

Before her marriage, Mai toured American performing in musicals and operettas. She was said to have a “voice of rare quality.” No less than the Alexandria Gazette critic remarked on her local Gilbert and Sullivan performance. “She has a brilliant future.” Her future became interwoven with the fabric of the house, and she continued performing with an ensemble known as the Sharps and Flats and as a church soloist. She taught piano and voice lessons in her front parlor for many years. Mai and Robert enjoyed the Washington-area theaters, and Mai’s scrapbook includes clippings on various performances, including John Philip Sousa concerts. They also entertained frequently with parties for local friends. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson visited them on the occasion of the George Washington’s Birthday parade. A grandstand enclosed with glass was built on or near the Downhams’ yard from which the president viewed the parade.

Excavation of the brick shaft on the Lee-Fendall property yielded evidence of the Downhams’ occupation. Notable among the thousands of artifacts recovered from the first three excavation levels are 1,265 nails; 23 pieces of drainpipe; 606 fragments of window glass; slate; lumps of roofing material; and paint samples. These artifacts were direct evidence of the Downham renovation.

Be sure to visit the Lee-Fendall House. For more information about the property, telephone 548-1789.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria city archaeologist.