Alexandria in the 20th Century and Beyond

The 20th century saw the creation of new neighborhoods as Alexandria expanded to the west, the advent of historic preservation and urban renewal, two World Wars, the Civil Rights movement and designation of the Parker-Gray District, and the arrival of new immigrant communities.

Page updated on Mar 4, 2020 at 9:23 AM

Alexandria in the 20th Century and Beyond

A Brief History of 20th and 21st Century Alexandria

Sand Hoppers on the Strand in 1940In 1940, sand hoppers from a concrete business could be seen on the Alexandria waterfront. This site, on The Strand, is now a City park at the foot of Prince Street. 

500 block King Street, 1928

The 500 Block of King Street in 1928.

New neighborhoods sprang up around the outskirts of the city by the turn of the century. Local industries included the Robert Portner Brewing Company, the Old Dominion glass works, the Virginia Marine Railway and Shipbuilding Company, and Potomac Yard, one of the largest rail facilities in the country. The U.S. Naval Torpedo Station, now the Torpedo Factory Art Center , was built during World War I and was expanded during World War II, with large industrial buildings dominating Alexandria's waterfront. A Ford Motor Company warehouse at the south end of the waterfront was also converted to military use during World War II.

The Second World War brought tremendous growth and change to the Washington area and to northern Virginia. National Airport was constructed at the beginning of the war on Alexandria's northern edge, the former site of Abingdon plantation. Thousands of people from all over the country poured into the region as the government expanded and Alexandria became one of many "bedroom communities" serving the capital city. This growth set the tone for the post-war period, as well, which has seen even greater development of Alexandria and her surrounding communities.

Today, Alexandria still retains much of its historic character. Many late 18th- and early 19th-century townhouses and warehouses remain in the "Old Town" section of the city, along the west bank of the Potomac River. While still a residential area for many Federal employees, Alexandria is also home to many national associations, corporations, restaurants, shops and other businesses. Many old landmarks have become museums, historic sites and art galleries. Public parks line the waterfront and the river is actively used by fishermen and recreational boaters. Visitors to the National Capitol area find that Alexandria serves as a quaint change of pace from the hectic hustle of downtown Washington, a place to relax and discover what the region was like many years ago. 


The African American Community

1939 Sit-Down StrikePrior to the famous Woolworth counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, five courageous African-American youths staged the first deliberate and planned sit-in at the Alexandria “public” Library on August 21, 1939.

Alexandria's black population increased during and after the Civil War, as part of the Northern Migration. In the 20th century, African Americans formed vibrant communities, with social life often centered around their churches. As blacks across America fought for Civil Rights, the country's first Sit-Down Strike took place at the Alexandria Library in 1939. The historic African American community known as Uptown was designated as the Parker-Gray District in 1984, and in 2008 was approved for listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register. It is expected to join the Old and Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.


Historic Preservation and Urban Renewal

Urban Renewal. 400 Block KIng StreetUrban Renewal, 400 Block King Street, north side. Gadsby's Tavern can be seen at the center of the photo, with City Hall across the street, on the right. 

By the 1920s, Alexandria was a quiet little southern town, but one with an especially rich heritage. Seeking to capitalize on this history and tap into the stream of tourists who traveled through Alexandria regularly on their way to Mount Vernon, local American Legion Post 24 purchased the old City Hotel as their headquarters and museum. The building had once been known as Gadsby's Tavern and had served a distinguished clientele including George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Fired by the same spirit that was guiding the restorations at Colonial Williamsburg, Gadsby's Tavern reopened to the public with a colonial costume ball in 1932, the bicentennial of Washington's birth. The American Legion's purchase and restoration of Gadsby's Tavern was part of the fledgling preservation movement beginning to take hold in Alexandria that later blossomed in the face of urban renewal in the 1960s.

During the mid-1960s, the City's leadership began to remake the old colonial port into a modern city as many of the oldest parts of town were redeveloped. Market Square, where public markets were held since the town's founding, was cleared of 18th- and 19th-century buildings except for the 1872 City Hall, and the block was excavated to hide a parking garage under the new Square. Across South Royal Street, most of the block was similarly demolished and excavated for a series of boutiques and retail stores named Tavern Square (the development being adjacent to Gadsby's Tavern.) As the wrecking balls swung, Alexandria's preservation movement grew, forcing city government to protect some of the community's landmarks. Among the buildings saved and restored during this period were The Torpedo Factory Art Center, The Lyceum and the Carlyle House, which joined Gadsby's Tavern in undergoing extensive renovations in time for the nation's Bicentennial in 1976.

The Old and Historic District, designated in 1946, was the third historic district in the United States, after Charleston and New Orleans. The historic African American community known as Uptown was designated as the Parker-Gray District in 1984, and in 2008 was approved for listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register. It is expected to join the Old and Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Learn more about historic preservation efforts.          


20th Century Neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places

National Register: Town of PotomacNational Register Historic District: Town of Potomac. The Town of Potomac was incorporated In 1908, joining the neighborhoods of Del Ray and St. Elmo. It was annexed by the City of Alexandria in 1930. The Town of Potomac was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. 

The Old and Historic District was designated in 1946 to preserve Alexandria's early architecture, but, since that time, 20th century neighborhoods have also been recognized for their historic and architectural significance. 

  • Del Ray and the Town of Potomac. St. Elmo and Del Ray, two subdivisions platted in 1894, were joined together in 1908 to form the incorporated town of Potomac. 
  • Fairlington. Fairlington is on the National Register of Historic Places, as a notable example of community planning and publicly financed housing built for defense workers and their families during World War II. Learn more about this history of this community, from the Fairlington Historical Society.
  • History of Parkfairfax. Parkfairfax was built during 1941 to 1943 to help alleviate the acute housing shortages resulting from the depression and World War II.
  • A Study in Decentralized Living: Parkfairfax, Alexandria, Virginia, by Laura L. Bobeczko. Historic Alexandria Quarterly, Spring 1997
  • Rosemont, located northwest of the Old and Historic District of Alexandria, adjacent to Alexandria's Union Station, is an unusually intact example of an early-twentieth century middle-class trolley suburb.

Alexandria Places and Transportation in the 20th Century

The final torpedo made at the Naval Torpedo Station, Alexandria, 1945The final torpedo made at the Naval Torpedo Station, Alexandria, in 1945 

Alexandria was once home to the largest railroad switching yard on the east coast, the Waterfront was dominated by industry including the Torpedo Factory (now an Art Center) and a Ford Motor Plant, and streetcar lines connected new suburbs with the Nation's capital.  

  • Learn more about places in the 20th century, including the Lloyd House, Torpedo Factory, and the Beachcombers Restaurant.
  • Learn more about transportation, including Potomac Yard, Union Station, Capital Airlines and streetcars.

The Old City Market

Petitt's stall at the City MarketJames Oliver Petitt of southern Fairfax County in front of his stall at the old City Market. One of three generations to operate the stall. 

The Farmers' Market has been in operation since 1751. The current City Hall building was constructed in 1871. The building was originally U-shaped around a central courtyard. Markets Stalls were located on the first floors of the west and north wings and in the courtyard. In 1967, as part of the Urban Renewal project, the City Hall building was enlarged and the current brick plaza and fountain were constructed.

You can still shop at the  Old Town Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings, year round.


Gerald Ford in Alexandria

Fords at ParkfairfaxAlexandria is honored to have been the home of Gerald R. Ford and his family for more than 20 years. Gerald Ford and his family moved to a rental property in Parkfairfax in 1951, when he was in his second term in Congress (R-Michigan). The family moved to their home at 514 Crown View Drive, in Alexandria’s Clover neighborhood, in the spring of 1955, where they remained until a few days after he became President of the United States.


The Ramsey Homes: An Example of Early Public Housing in Alexandria

Ramsey Homes Building III (Anna Maas 2015 for HABSThe Ramsey Homes, a former public housing project on North Patrick Street, is being replaced by a mixed income community with low-income and market-rate units. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requires actions to assess historic resources and to mitigate or resolve adverse effects. The documentation of the history and architecture of the Ramsey Homes was undertaken as part of this historic preservation process.

The Ramsey Homes were constructed in 1941-1942 by the United States Housing Authority (USHA) as permanent housing for African-American defense workers. Ramsey Homes housed 15 defense workers and their families during World War II and the Korean War. This was part of a large Federal plan to provide 26,206 units of wartime housing in the Washington metropolitan area.

Toward the end of the Korean War, the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority (ARHA) purchased the Ramsey Homes from the Federal Public Housing Authority, and the buildings served as affordable housing units from 1953 until 2018. 

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