Alexandria's bustling Old Town, an area that has been renewing itself residentially and commercially for more than two decades, fostered a special reward for historic preservation even before it became trendy and economically advantageous.
Because of its long heritage, surviving federal-styled buildings and convenient location, the rejuvenated area centering around King Street has made the Old Town name nearly as well-known as Georgetown. In the 1970s both new office and retail buildings have been built along with many new town houses and apartments.
Meanwhile, however, the restoration of historic business and homes has continued within the ambience enhanced by historic landmark designations.
An example of a small but significant restoration effort can be seen at 317 Cameron St., where Marjorie Hemmendinger has transformed half of an old warehouse. Years ago it had been upgraded by Edw. E. Lawler & Co., a commission merchant (dealing in butter, eggs, poultry, dressed hogs, fruits and grain).
Hammendinger, who lives in contemporary Hollin Hills with her husband, an attorney, bought the building in 1977 for $225,000 and spent "thousands" to renew the wide pine floors and other interior woodwork. Now she has her Full Circle crafts shop on the first floor with the second and third floors -- designed with skylights and dormers -- available for renting tenants.
"I particularly like the gentle slant of the 60-foot-long floor on the first level toward the street," said Hemmendinger. "It probably helped to ease the burden of the 18th and 19th century warehouse laborers who rolled out barrels of various foods and products."
The other half of her building was restored earlier by another owner. Both are notable for the curved arches over the long, graceful windows on the second and third floors. An Historic Alexandria Foundation marks the facade of the painted brick building.
Only a few blocks away, at Cameron and Fairfax streets, the Bank of Virginia recently opened a branch in three-story brick building that was occupied from 1806 to 1834 by the Bank of Alexandria. It was one of the oldest financial institutions in the nation, dating back to 1792, and boasted George Washington as a stockholder and depositor.
However, that bank failed in 1834 during an economic panic in the administration of President Andrew Jackson. Later it was sold to the federal government and used as a post office and custom house before being converted and enlarged into the Mansion House Hotel that served as a hospital during the Civil War.
Subsequently, the building and its use deteriorated. It was a combination of apartments and commercial space throughout most of this century. The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority bought the building in 1970 and had the original, and obviously historic, bank property preserved and restored under contract by OTV Inc. Designated as an historic Virginia landmark, the building also was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.
Now the Bank of Virginia is leasing the first floor that has a fireplace, arched doorway with fanlight and original cast-iron vault doors. "The real beauty to us is that it is an active property," said S. Joseph Ward, a vice president of the Richmond-based banking institution. "The combination of historic preservation and full utilization is certainly worthwhile."
The second and third floors of the bank building have been renovated and are being leased as apartments. A lower (ground level) is being turned into offices and a small shop.
The restored bank building is adjacent to the widely acclaimed Carlyle House, a 1752-era mansion with gardens that has been restored to become one of Alexandria's prime tourist attractions.