Photographs and prints tell much of the City of Alexandria's story at the Lyceum, the town's history museum on South Washington Street. Informational panels accompany artifacts and memorabilia, leading visitors from the river town's Colonial start to its present-day status as a thriving suburban seat outside the nation's capital.
Two rooms off the main lobby contain the permanent collection, set against dark green walls and glossy hardwood floors. A cinch to follow, the exhibit takes no more than a half-hour to see.
The pictorial tour is grouped into major historical periods spanning three centuries, and makes clear that the town's history is independent from that of its federal neighbors, even though at one time it was part of the District of Columbia.
Photos document the occupation by federal troops during the Civil War, the building of the U.S. Naval Torpedo Station during World War I and a sit-in by African Americans at the library on Queen Street in 1939. Turn-of-the-century ads for Portner's Hofbrau reflect a still-thriving tradition fostered by its Old Dominion Brewery.
Locally produced stoneware and furniture are also on display, as well as reproductions of Native American artifacts from the area. One corner of the gallery re-creates an 18th-century parlor. A brief narration of the town's decision to pull away from the District's jurisdiction in 1846 foretells of problems still plaguing the federal enclave's residents, with one crucial exception: a proposed ban on slave trade in the District hastened Alexandria's retreat.
The Lyceum's role as chief preservationist is apropos in light of its original function. Decades before the Civil War, civic leaders formed a group called the Lyceum Company, which met for lectures and debates on literary, scientific and historical subjects.
In 1839, it joined with the Alexandria Library Company to construct the Greek Revival building, now home to the museum. But the war brought such cultural pursuits to a halt, converting the building into a hospital. Since then, two families, various offices, and a state visitors center have laid claim to the structure. In 1985, under city ownership, it once again opened as a cultural hub.
The annual Scottish Preview, which kicks off the holiday season with music and storytelling, ranks near the top of the Lyceum's long list of cultural events. Oktoberfest, another family event, celebrates the town's German history with music, bratwurst and beer, and face- painting for the children. The upstairs Lecture Hall, which can be rented out for receptions and parties, also stays busy with concerts and lectures, many sponsored by the museum.
Visitors also have a chance to see the museum trimmed in holiday lights, as well as five other historic sites, on the Christmas Candlelight Tour. Past the museum shop, you'll find changing exhibit space, where topics often extend beyond local history, but always stay close to interests at home.
-- Margaret Hutton