The First Developments

This 1892 map shows the NW Alexandria and Park Addition developments and the planned Spring Park (Rosemont) development. The portion of NW Alexandria south of Braddock Road, above Spring Park (now Rosemont), was quickly abandoned.

The First Development
The influx of immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s brought about a substantial increase in the US population, which rose at 2.3 to 2.6 percent per year during that period, from 38.5 million in 1870 to 63 million twenty years later.

 Where to put all these people? The cities became more dense, largely in the form of tenement housing, but for those who could afford it the urban edges started to look attractive. In Alexandria the first firm to respond was the North West Alexandria Improvement Company, formed in 1890. They issued 8400 shares of stock to investors as far afield as Boston, and in June of that year they purchased 13 acres from William Fresbie and 37 acres from Sarah Otterback, both of DC.

 Where to put all these people? The cities became more dense, largely in the form of tenement housing, but for those who could afford it the urban edges started to look attractive. In Alexandria the first firm to respond was the North West Alexandria Improvement Company, formed in 1890. They issued 8400 shares of stock to investors as far afield as Boston, and in June of that year they purchased 13 acres from William Fresbie and 37 acres from Sarah Otterback, both of DC.

 As finally defined the NW Alexandria development covered the area to the north of Braddock Road, starting in the flat land at what is now Newton Street and extending west up into the hills past Ruffner Road. Streets and sidewalks were laid out, covered with flint gravel, and lots marked off. In common with other developments of the time no structures were built, nor were utilities installed. A buyer simply purchased a bare lot, these averaging 50x120 feet, along with about a dozen so-called “villa sites” of 1 to 3 ½ acres.

Having not put up houses, such developers were carrying little financial load and were in no great hurry to sell the properties. Sales were respectable for such a venture in the first few years, especially for the more desirable uplands lots. Nevertheless, in January 1893 some 29 investors held a public auction of their 604 shares in front of the market house in Alexandria. Although only a small portion of the total stock outstanding it indicated some initial misgivings.

 The company's marketing plan was, in fact, flawed. In an age when the horse-drawn carriage was the only individual transportation living that far from the jobs and shopping of the city meant that a buyer had to maintain an expensive horse and either stable the horse in the city during the workday or employ a servant who could drive the man-of-the-house to and from work and return to the house during the day for the use of the wife/mother. In other words, living in North West Alexandria was an expensive proposition, one suited only to the fairly well-to-do. Thus, it is not surprising that the early sales of lots were in the more-desirable hills where large houses were eventually built.

 Then the panic of 1893 hit early in the year, leading to a four-year depression that saw unemployment top 10% through 1897, with rates reaching 25% in Pennsylvania and a disastrous 35% in New York. Not surprisingly, fewer people bought lots, and even fewer built houses.

By mid-1895 the company was in trouble. They had spent $82,000 in buying the land and putting in improvements and corporate debt stood at $17,500, about 40% higher than the company could handle. The board of directors waffled on what to do, but finally, on June 15 1897 they organized an auction of the remaining properties, a bit over 200 lots and about 12 villa lots. Things recovered in 1898 but it was bad enough that there had been only 59 sales by 1900, and that resulted in only seven houses being built, the empty landscape hardly encouraging for would-be buyers.

The First House in NW Alexandria

Horace Gambrill was a clerk in the US Pension Office in 1884 when he married Marie Ely, daughter of a prominent and wealthy Maryland family. His frail and widowed mother-in-law moved in with the couple in DC and stayed there until her passing in 1889. Presumably using an inheritance he invested in the North West Alexandria Company on its formation in 1890 and purchased one of its best lots, now 1502 Stonewall at the corner of Braddock with a commanding view of the city to the east. On that he built a large beautiful Queen Anne house in 1891, albeit with a mortgage, where he lived with his wife and their teenage African-American servant Alford Rector. He continued to work as a clerk at the Pension Office until his sudden death in the early morning of January 1, 1903 at age 69. Marie could not continue the mortgage payments and the house was sold at auction in March 1905.

The first house in North West Alexandria is this impressive Queen Anne Victorian at 1502 Stonewall build in 1891. Largely shielded from view, this shows most of the south side of the house.

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Stumbling Forward
  
Two other developments were incorporated in 1892 and purchased their plots of land. The Spring Park Improvement Company bought a main plot of 73 acres north of King Street and a further 26 acres at Hoof Run. By the time they were ready to develop their property, however, the Panic of 1893 had taken hold and the plans were put on the shelf. Indeed, they did nothing with the land for almost ten years, finally opening up sales in late 1900. In 1908 the development was sold the Alexandria Realty Company, and shortly thereafter to the new Rosemont Corporation, which accelerated sales.

 The second development was organized by George Videtto, half of the wide-ranging real estate investment firm of Spear & Videtto in DC and Michigan. He bought a linear tract of land in late 1891 for a reported $25,500 and began developing it as “Park Addition” the following year.

 Videtto constructed an east-west street, Alexandria Avenue, running from the northern part of the city to the North West Alexandria development. Lots were laid out on each side, each having a frontage of 25 feet and a depth of 120 feet. In June Spear retired from the partnership, which was renamed George C Videtto & Co. As was the case with the North West Alexandria land, no transportation was available, the lots were less desirable, and sales were slow to take off, only a single lot being sold to Mary Kennedy for $250 in July 1892.

 The Videtto company was apparently heavily leveraged and the panic of 1893 pushed the firm over the edge. In September 1893 Park Addition (less the one lot sold) was put under the auction hammer to satisfy $14,281 in defaulted mortgages. It was bought by Melissa A Wood for the mortgage value.

This house, at 3 E Luray Avenue was built in 1910 and is typical of many of the mid-price homes built on the eastern (flat) portion of the NW Alexandria development (Google Earth)

Melissa Wood was a 51-year-old widowed mother of two and apparently not the shy and retiring type, being one of the first dozen residential telephone customers in Alexandria in 1894. She moved aggressively to sell land, the depression notwithstanding, but was rewarded with more motion than substance, as sales were consummated, then defaulted on, and resold. In spite of all the churning there were only ten sold plots, with only one house, in 1895 and by 1900 only seventeen plots (although one covered the entire north side at the east end of the street) and two houses.

 The creation of Potomac Yard in 1905 led to the loss of the three eastern blocks of Alexandria Avenue, including both of the existing houses. Thus, there was not a single house to be seen in the development during 1905-1908; one was built in the latter year and two more in 1910. Development picked up somewhat after that so that by 1915 the number of houses had increased to 12, still a far cry from the 77 single-family and duplex units plus 18 row houses in the development now.

The third house to be built in Park Addition, at 210 E Alexandria, still stands as a lovely example of Italianate row house style. Beautifully restored, a wing, not visible in this photo, was added to the west side sometime after 1971.

The Oldest House

Henry D Grimm, a house painter, and his wife Anne moved from their rented house on Lee Street to Park Addition in 1908, buying a lot on the north side of the street and building a row-style house. There they raised their family of two sons, both becoming house painters themselves, and two daughters.

 In April 1924 Henry fell from the roof of a building he was painting and died instantly of a broken neck. His widow Anne remained in the house, although in declining health in her final years, until her death in 1965 at age 89, a remarkable run of 57 years in the family house.

The house remains as the oldest surviving structure in Park Addition.