My first recollection of the old Bank of Alexandria building hails back to the late 1930s and early '40s; a sense of genteel decay in much of downtown Alexandria as seen through the eyes of a boy visiting grandparents during summer vacations.

Alexandria escaped the fate of many Virginia cities and of her Potomac River neighbor. Both Norfolk, in 1775, and Washington, D.C., in 1814, were heavily damaged during engagements with the British. Richmond and Fredericksburg suffered considerable destruction during the war between the states. But the architectural character of Alexandria has evolved unmolested by radical change despite two and a half centuries of wars and modernization.

The Old Bank of Alexandria, which opened for business in 1793, was noteworthy in its day because it added to the community's prosperity as a business center. After many side trips into other ventures, the building once again serves the community as a banking institution, as a branch of Bank of Virginia. But more important, this restoration preserves a rare example of early American commercial architecture.

Among the bank's early patrons was George Washington, who was both a stockholder and depositor.

Being the first bank chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia, this new financial institution had an edge in its development. Not only were the officers and directors of the bank prominent merchants of Alexandria, but with only one exception, the bank's presidents each served at least one term as mayor of the city.

With growth and expansion, the bank needed larger quarters. Bank directors selected a site on the corner of Cameron and Fairfax streets adjacent to the John Carlyle mansion, which is also an historic edifice. The new bank building, completed in 1806, was a three-story brick structure with 12 large rooms, complete with living quarters, a smokehouse and stable. When the new facilities were occupied in 1807, the bank had been rechartered as a federal institution because the city had become a part of the District of Columbia. The bank prospered over the next several generations. Not only was it serving local citizens, it had also become a major depository for state and federal funds.

Shaky economic conditions during Andrew Jackson's administration fueled a run on the banks and the Bank of Alexandria closed in 1834. Over the next 14 years the building variously housed medical offices, was used as a post office and as customs house before being refurbished in 1848 as the Mansion House Hotel.

This venture proved very successful for the new owner, James Green, a local cabinetmaker of some renown. Green enlarged the hotel by constructing a four-story wraparound addition next to the bank and in front of the nearby Carlyle mansion, linking the two older structures into what became one of the most popular hotels in the East.

After Green's heirs sold the building in 1882, it was renamed the Braddock House and fell into decline under a string of absentee owners. In 1906, under a new owner, the building was converted into apartments; the ground level was used for business space.

The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority obtained the property in 1970. The wraparound addition was demolished and the original Carlyle House was restored and opened to the public.

Once the Carlyle project was completed, an extensive examination of the old Bank of Alexandria building revealed the all-but-forgotten moldings and mantels hand-crafted by master artisans of a bygone era. The old bank was added to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a Virginia Historic Landmark.

The park authority sought competitive bids from developers to restore the building for commercial and residential use, then lease it under 40-year agreements.

OTV Inc., an Alexandria developer, was the successful bidder. After placing about $300,000 into the restoration, OTV borrowed an additional $650,000. Plans now call for a tax-exempt bond offering to complete the financial arrangements.

The Bank of Virginia opened its branch in late spring 1980, and has the distinction of doing business in the oldest bank interior of the nation.