Search for History Clears Way for Future

Shephard holds an old newspaper photo of Colross, in the 1100 block of Oronoco Street where a 169-unit luxury condominium complex is planned on the 2.5-acre site.
Shephard holds an old newspaper photo of Colross, in the 1100 block of Oronoco Street where a 169-unit luxury condominium complex is planned on the 2.5-acre site. (Photos By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005

The backhoe arrived on Oronoco Street in Old Town at noon, rumbling into position atop a pile of dirt before tearing into the earth.

Soon crews will begin building a 169-unit luxury condominium complex on the 2.5-acre site in northwest Old Town. But the heavy equipment pushing dirt around the property last week was not there to shape the land's future. It was there to uncover the past.

It has been about 75 years since the historic mansion that once stood on the property was removed and shipped brick by brick to New Jersey, where it was restored. Although the house is gone, historians have records that trace in detail the physical evolution of the property long ago named Colross, as well as its previous owners -- merchants, city mayors and, perhaps most eminent among them, Thomson Mason, grandson of George Mason of Gunston Hall.

While that wealth of knowledge might have been enough to satisfy the historical curiosity of planners in other cities, it was not enough for officials in Alexandria, where historical preservation is a priority; the city employs a full-time archaeological staff, which runs the oldest and largest city-funded program of its kind in the nation.

So in March, a major excavation of the site was begun at the behest of the city, which believed the land had enough historical significance to merit a closer look before the complex was erected.

So far, the project's developer, Diamond Properties LLC, has paid a consultant about $100,000 to explore the land for historical artifacts and ensure that burial plots have been removed.

While not much has been recovered in the way of artifacts, historians say the long dig has given them a clearer view of life on Colross. For example, they discovered an underground cistern that served as a water-filtration system, and evidence that slaves, known to have been kept at the property, lived in outbuildings on the land.

The fact-finding mission is more than just a kind gesture on the developer's part, it's a city zoning requirement.

In 1989, city leaders passed an archaeological protection ordinance to safeguard the city's history from ground-disturbing excavations. Alexandria is one of a few cities nationwide to have such legislation, which requires that construction sites of a certain size and in certain parts of the city be examined before building begins.

Sometimes the inspections are brief. Other times they involve months of digging, as is the case at Colross, where the developer hired R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates Inc. of Frederick, a cultural resource management firm, to conduct the archaeological review.

While the ordinance does not stop developers from building new structures, it does prevent a site with historical significance from being overrun by bulldozers before it can be examined for artifacts.

"A lot of developers view [the cost of archaeology] just as something they have to add on" to the project, said Steven J. Shephard, assistant city archaeologist. "It's not that they're happy about the extra expense, but when they build in Old Town, they know it is part of the process."

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