Where We Live: Dempsey, cottage charm in Old Town Alexandria

By Susan Straight
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 21, 2011; 8:38 AM

You won't encounter the Dempsey neighborhood driving through Old Town Alexandria or even visiting the shops along Slaters Lane. It's the kind of neighborhood you discover while walking your dog or visiting a friend who lives there, say residents of the 84 townhouses built in the 1930s.

"It's got an old-English-village-type feel, with its stone fronts and slate roofs. It's really not like anything else. It's a little enclave," said Lisa Smith, a real estate agent with McEnearney Associates.

Also known as Fagelson's Addition, for Samuel and Matilda Fagelson, successful dairy farmers and grocers who bought the land in 1915, the neighborhood is often referred to as Dempsey in real estate listings. In Alexandria tax records it's known as Fagelson's Addition to Dempsey's Subdivision or as Mount Vernon Construction Co.

The English aura extends to street names such as Avon Place and Devon Place and to homes described as "Shakespearean-flavor stone cottages, each marked by a signature wooden beam resting over its front door," in Charlie Clark's 1993 history of the community.

The houses, with two stories plus basement, were built in 1938 and 1939 by developer J. Garrett Beitzell and Mount Vernon Construction Co. There are just two layouts - end units and interior units - according to longtime resident Norma Stratton, who is also an agent with Long & Foster. They have two or three bedrooms, one bathroom, and one or two fireplaces.

The interior units originally sold for $5,500 in 1938, according to John Stratton, who learned this from his late next-door neighbor, a World War I veteran.

Original buyers could choose to have a rec room or garage on the basement level, accessible by driveways from the alleys behind the homes.

Most owners have since converted the garages to additional living space. "Most people would rather have the space and another bathroom," said one homeowner who hasn't done so, 11-year resident Penelope Roberts. But she has considered it. "I think I might be the only one left with the garage," she said.

Many owners have added additional bathrooms, sunrooms and porches. Lot sizes range from three-hundredths of an acre to a tenth of an acre - about 1,300 to 4,350 square feet.

Exterior renovations require approval. The neighborhood falls under the historic guidelines of the Old Town Alexandria Board of Architectural Review. "They have to approve anything you do to the outside of your house," said Roberts.

As in the heart of Old Town just to the south, life in such quaint surroundings comes at a price - parking can sometimes be tight. Though residents say they can always find a parking spot, it's sometimes a block away. For the most part, however, residents agree that they are considerate of the spaces in front of one another's homes.

There's no neighborhood association or homeowners association, and thus no dues. "That's a big draw," said Smith. It's a well-maintained neighborhood. The tidy little park in its center, city-maintained Chetworth Park, covers nearly a third of an acre and has playground equipment and benches. It's a calm spot where adults, children and pets congregate.

"The park is the real gathering place," said Stratton who moved to the neighborhood with her husband in 1980. About 10 years ago, a small fence was added around the tot lot on one side of the park to provide separate areas for dogs and kids, said Stratton. Frequent users of the park add an extra level of care to the basic city maintenance. "They watch after it. They plant flowers," among other projects, said Stratton.

"It's an active neighborhood. Everyone seems to know each other. It's very tightknit," said Smith.

Moriah and Dylan Margerum are renting from owners in the neighborhood and were surprised by the community they stumbled into. "We know the names of every person on this block. That was an unanticipated bonus," said Moriah Margerum.

The Margerums were specifically looking for a walkable neighborhood near public transportation, shops and restaurants, located between their two jobs in Fairfax County and Laurel.

"We wanted quaint," said Dylan Margerum, something like downtown Frederick, where he grew up. "We knew we wanted to be in or near Old Town. We wanted somewhere where we could walk to get dinner," he said.

"We pulled onto this street and we knew immediately," said Moriah Margerum.

They regularly walk to one of the neighborhood restaurants or take a $5 cab ride down to King Street. "The Greek restaurant is phenomenal," he said of Vaso's Kitchen, which occupies the site of the historic Dixie Pig barbecue joint, just three blocks from their house.

Dog owners like the Friday-night doggie happy hour at Buzz, the bakery on Slaters Lane. Other neighbors say just walking their dogs is a way to connect with their neighbors in Dempsey and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Larry and Abigail Raine were specifically looking for a dog-friendly community when they moved from Hawaii eight years ago. On a recent weekend afternoon they walked Pip, a spirited Russian toy terrier. "What we like about the neighborhood is the people," said Larry Raine. "We know just about everyone in the neighborhood."

Another significant benefit of the neighborhood is its proximity to the Potomac . "We're so close to the river and the bicycle trail," said resident George Semeniuk. Cyclists love the fact that the trail to Mount Vernon is across the street.

"The bike trail is great," said John Stratton, who pedals to work in the District.

Commuting options from the neighborhood are varied: Besides the bike trail, there's the Braddock Road Metro station less than a mile away and buses that run along the George Washington Parkway just a few blocks to the east. Drivers appreciate the fact that there are only two stoplights between home and the District.

One of the best commuting options for those who work in D.C. is the 11Y express bus that picks up riders just across the parkway. "The 11Y is a family. I know everyone on that bus," said Larry Raine, who rides it to work. Friendships have been made on the bus route over the years. "It's a fun bus," said Raine, describing the year one of the buses was decorated at Christmas. The commute is worth the express fare of $3.65 one way. "It only takes 20 minutes" to downtown Washington, he said.

"It's a great little neighborhood," Stratton said. "I can't imagine living anywhere else."

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