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

Norma and John Stratton greet neighbor Peter Stramese outside their stone-front townhouse, on the northern edge of Old Town Alexandria.
Norma and John Stratton greet neighbor Peter Stramese outside their stone-front townhouse, on the northern edge of Old Town Alexandria. (Susan Straight for The Washington Post)
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.

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