When you make a visit to Old Town Alexandria, and to Principle Gallery in particular, you are walking in the footsteps of some of early America’s most historically significant figures. We are amazed and humbled to be immersed in the area’s vibrant history in this way, and we’re incredible excited to share with you a brief piece written by Edward Moser, historian, author, and operator of Tours of Old Town. Please enjoy! See the end of the post for links to both Edward’s tours and his two books!
The Principle Gallery and Alexandria’s Rich History
by Edward Moser
The Principle Gallery is in the middle of everything an art, architecture, and history lover could want.
Just down King Street from it is the Torpedo Factory, a World War One, and Two, munitions factory now transformed into artist studios where visitors can watch sculptors and painters conjure up their creations in their own places of work. Across King St. from it is the imposing tobacco and ship sail warehouse, now a Starbuck’s, of George Washington’s military aide, Colonel John Fitzgerald. He and George co-endowed the nearby St. Mary’s Church, the first Catholic cathedral in the American South, and resting place of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution.
A half block up King St. is the tourist information center, once the house of Alexandria magnate William Ramsey. He moved this former mansion by barge along what was then the Potomac River, now King St. landfill, and deposited his abode by crane at that spot! Across the street is the Market Square and City Hall, designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the original U.S. Capitol Building. Except for its far side, which burned down in 1871, and was rebuilt by Adolph Cluss, the architect of D.C.’s Smithsonian Castle and the National Portrait Gallery. At the meeting hall of City Hall, George Mason dreamed up something called the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Across from it is the Carlyle House mansion, the real-life setting of the recent Civil War-era TV series, Mercy Street.
Then there’s the Principle Gallery itself, built and inhabited by another colonel of Washington’s revolutionary Army, George Gilpin. He was something of a Renaissance Man. Just before the Revolution he served on the local Committee of Public Safety, the Virginia equivalent of the Minutemen militia. He fought with valor at the major battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania, around the time of Valley Forge.
After the war he helped run the port of Alexandria, then one of the nation’s busiest, and backed Washington’s plans to build a canal from Georgetown to Alexandria, the Potomack Canal, later the C&O. He was a member of Washington’s masonic lodge, now marked by the soaring George Washington Masonic National Memorial at the other end of King St. President Thomas Jefferson appointed him as a court officer involved in aiding the town’s widows and orphans.
Gilpin was part of the effort to lay the boundary stones of the new capital city of Washington, which until 1846 included the town of Alexandria. One of these stones, laid by African-American surveyor Benjamin Bannecker, remains near the Wilson Bridge one mile to the south. Also a farmer, Gilpin sold G.W. the tons of corn he used for his whiskey distillery, recently reconstructed, at Mount Vernon, and also was the largest single purchaser of the spirits.
Most importantly, Gilpin was a cousin of a wealthy, charming, and keenly intelligent widow, Martha Dandridge Custis—and introduced her to George Washington, her future husband. George Gilpin and George Washington were friends for decades: G.W. would often dine and stay over at the Gilpin house. Gilpin was one of six pallbearers at Washington’s funeral, held at the imposing Christ Church a few blocks from here. That lovely English country church was designed by James Wren, a relative of Christopher Wren, the architect of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.
The Gilpins and the Washingtons, as Virginia gentry, had fine tastes in the fine arts, and that tradition is proudly carried on by the Principle Gallery. If you like art and history, take the time to explore the historic and finely crafted Colonial and Federal era town homes and public buildings of Old Town. Then come inside our gallery to partake even more in the finer things in life.
Ed Moser is the operator of Tours of Old Town, found at meetup.com– click here for more information!
Ed is also the author of “A Patriot’s A to Z of America: Things Every Good American Should Know,” and “The Two-Term Jinx!: Why Most Presidents Stumble in Their Second Terms, and How Some Succeed- Volume 1, George Washington- Theodore Roosevelt.” Click on either title to purchase from Amazon!