Where We Live | Seminary Hill in Alexandria, Va.

shareShare
Residents describe Seminary Hill, a suburb in west Alexandria, as a “green oasis,” tucked away from the city’s bustling streets by undulating hills and mature trees. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/for The Washington Post)

Residents describe Seminary Hill, a suburb in west Alexandria, as a “green oasis,” tucked away from the city’s bustling streets by undulating hills and mature trees.

So it’s surprising to learn that the posh neighborhood, with stately homes on spacious lots, once was a trash dump for the Virginia Theological Seminary and Episcopal High School, according to neighborhood lore.

“When you start digging in your yard, you’re going to find things,” said Carter Flemming, president of the Seminary Hill Neighborhood Association.

The Virginia Theological Seminary, for which the neighborhood is named, can’t confirm that the area was a dump site. But residents have unearthed broken china and Civil War buttons and munitions in their backyards from when the area was used as a fort and hospital by the Union Army.

The seminary, built in 1823, is the area’s spiritual and ecological anchor. The towering Italianate cupola of Aspinwall Hall, thick tree canopy, and expansive grounds define the neighborhood. Its influence extends to street names such as Bishop and Vicar lanes.

Residents are invited to explore the campus with guided audio tours, eat at its cafe and attend musical performances and events hosted by the seminary.

“Churches aren’t going to survive if you don’t get into the habit of how to be a welcoming place for neighborhoods,” said Ian Markham, dean and president of VTS. “We very much want the neighborhood to feel like this is their campus, this is their home.”

But Seminary Hill is not one thing or one place. It’s a collection of cul-de-sacs and residential hamlets that radiate around the seminary grounds. Pockets were built at different times, and today it’s a diverse cluster of communities.

Some, like Chapel Hill and Seminary Valley, are defined by single-family homes. Others feel more urban and include apartment buildings and shopping centers.

“If you walk through them . . . you don’t know where one starts and one stops,” said Betty Mallon, a resident and real estate agent at McEnearney Associates.

Woods Avenue is one of Alexandria’s oldest communities of African American homeowners. Many residents are descendants of the first African Americans to settle in the area shortly after the Civil War.

Referred to as “Mud Town,” these early settlements were not connected to city sanitation systems and did not have paved roads.

“We had about an acre of land. We had gardens. We had a tractor . . . there were a lot of little houses here and there, but they were very neat,” said Arminta Wood, 94, who has lived in the area for more than 60 years. “It was an extended family . . . a community that does not exist now.”

In 1927, a Rosenwald school was built on land donated by a relative of Wood’s husband who been enslaved. The schoolhouse stood until around 1960, when it was demolished — and families displaced — to make room for T.C. Williams High School.

“They destroyed a community,” said Wood. Although the city gave displaced families the first opportunity to purchase the ramblers that replaced the original homes, many could not afford them and were forced to leave. Wood called the city’s actions a “moral and economic tragedy.”

The current reckoning over the school’s name — T.C. Williams, a longtime Alexandria schools superintendent, was an avowed segregationist — belies a deeper history of displacement and racial injustice, resident Dave Cavanaugh said.

Historic homes are scattered throughout the neighborhood, but many have been torn down. One, on Fort Williams Parkway, was built in 1856 by a member of Robert E. Lee’s family. Dubbed “Stuartland,” it sold for $1.7 million in 2013. Another was a summer house for the progeny of Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

“We enjoy the history of our neighborhood, but we’re not in a museum setting for it as parts of Old Town are,” said Flemming.

Much of this area was considered Fairfax County until Alexandria annexed the land in 1951. The city’s original boundary ended near what is now the King Street Metro station until it was extended to Quaker Lane in 1930, and to its present boundary in 1951, said Flemming.

Most people in Seminary Hill walk for pleasure and drive to work. Residents are dependent on cars, and many houses have multicar garages.

“It’s not walkable to the Metro, it’s not walkable to the restaurants and bars. But in exchange, you get larger lots, more privacy,” said Mallon.

But the neighborhood is beginning to feel the creep of increased urbanization.

“There’s a tension between the forces of urbanization that are all around us,” said Flemming. “But there’s this center of Alexandria that remains largely, not exclusively, single-family homes. People bought into that and expect that will continue.”

Last year, the city rolled out the Seminary Road Complete Streets project, which reduced the four-lane thoroughfare to three lanes to make room for bike lanes. Because many in the area drive, the “road diet” caused an uproar among residents, the Virginia Theological Seminary, which supported the plan, and the city.

“We’re trying to all move past that moment — it’s not a happy moment for Seminary Hill, for the seminary, or for any of us,” said Flemming. “No matter what side you were on, it caused an awful lot of tension in this area.”

Living there: Seminary Hill is roughly bounded by Van Dorn Street and Interstate 395 to the to the northwest, Duke Street and Holmes Run Parkway to the south, and King Street to the northeast. Its eastern boundary extends just beyond North Quaker Lane.

There are 13 active listings in Seminary Hill. The highest-priced is a six-bedroom, seven-bathroom house listed at $3.3 million. The lowest-priced is a two-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse listed at $459,900. The highest-priced house sold last year was a six-bedroom, seven-bathroom new construction for $2.8 million. The lowest-priced home was a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo that sold for $180,000. According to McEnearney Associates, the average price of homes sold last year was $762,532.

Schools: James K. Polk and Douglas MacArthur elementary, George Washington and Francis C. Hammond middle and T.C. Williams High.

Transit: Seminary Hill is about a 10-minute drive from the King Street Metro station and the Virginia Railway Express’s Alexandria station. The neighborhood is also served by multiple bus lines. Major thoroughfares include Interstate 395, Interstate 495 (the Capital Beltway), Duke Street and King Street.