Buildings of Del Ray
Your house is important. It is a critical thread in the architectural and social history of Alexandria.
The Del Ray neighborhoods have an embarrasment of riches of really great old buildings. No wonder folks want to emulate us.
They can't, for our buildings were not just thrown up in the last few years, racing for ever-larger pretensions, but are an organic record of 120 years of history. In particular, they feature an almost unparalleled range of designs from the golden age of American residential architecture, 1890 to 1940.
A brief explosion in the popularity of hollow concrete blocks as building materials followed the St Louis Exposition of 1904 and was reflected in Alexandria with plans to build houses of this new material along Alexandria Avenue. The driver for this was James Sullivan, a bookkeeper who ran a concrete block company on the side. His faith proved misplaced and he was forced into bankruptcy, but the three houses associated with his efforts are still here and largely intact, at 15 East Alexandria, 205 East Alexandria and 207 East Alexandria.
Here is a beautiful front-gable type, put up by Hattie Duncan and her sister in 1925 and occupied for many years by the Crone's, owners of the The Dime Store on Mt Vernon Avenue, a favorite of Del Ray children and their mothers in the 1950s. You can read about 217 E Bellefonte here.
Tudor revivals, with their cross-gable configuration, are not a dominant style in Del Ray, largely because they did not become popular until the 1930s. A nice example can be found at 209 E Bellefonte, built for the Nilson family in 1936, and later home to the Coberly family from West Virginia.
One of the first houses in the area was put up by Jefferson Davis Ashford and his wife Edna in 1894 at 301 E Clifford, but it was antique dealer Thomas Newlon and his wife who lived here the longest, 23 years.
Del Ray has many beautiful bungalows. George Burgess built one of them at what is now 15 W Custis in 1928.
Del Ray Avenue
Danish-born agricultural expert Frants Lund was the inaugural owner of the pretty bungalow at 12 West Del Ray Avenue in 1922. He became an international emissary of agricultural best practices, funded by the Rockefeller family, in the 1920s but it ended his family life. Harry and Bertha Butler followed in the house, sending the three kids though high school at GW before moving to smaller accommodations, still in Del Ray.
Del Ray tended to be a pretty quiet place. The exception was 1918, when the Army moved in, leasing the old racetrack property to station and train the 12th Field Artillery before its deployment to combat in France in WW I. One of the houses that would have been most exposed to the noise and dirt would have been the house put up by Clarence and Georgiana Howser in early 1914 at what is now 400 East Del Ray Ave. It had the misfortune, if only for about half a year, of backing directly onto the small Camp St. Asaph, filled with its 1,300 soldiers and 1,000 horses.
George French had an active life and built a great folk-Victorian house at 311 E Howell. The two Robertson brothers, who married two Chewning sisters, lived there for 37 years.
William Kidwell bought one house (401) and built two others (216 & 400) for his family on East Howell during 1899 to 1912. William was a leading citizen of the Town of Potomac and his family styaed in the original house until 1973, a run of 74 years. Two of the three beautiful houses remain. Read about them here.
George Rucker got his fame and fortune later in Arlington County as the Clerk of the Circuit Court and major land developer, founding a firm that still bears his name, and as the father of Clarendon, but he launched his career from here in Del Ray, at 302 LaVerne Avenue.
Francis Keen Warner put up five houses comprising most of the north side of a block at 107, 109, 111, 113 and 115 West Mason, although he did it gradually between 1914 and 1938. They are beautifully intact and you can see how housing tastes changed here as he responded.
The Dews family moved here en masse from rural Kansas at the start of WW II and stayed in Alexandria, mostly in this Newesta house at 408 E Mason, until homesickness caught up with them fifteen years later. .
One of the earliest large houses was that built by Joseph and Jane Peake at what is now 117 West Monroe. With Jane living to be a hundred it is not surprising it stayed in the family until 1956. The house, I am sure, would have interesting stories to tell.
Mt Vernon Avenue
What do you do when a home with wonderful memories winds up sitting on a suddenly-valuable piece of land? Why, you make the wealthy buyer of the land pick up your home and move it to a new location. That's what George Walter did at 1508 Mt Vernon, as you can read about here.
The U-shaped courtyard at 2000-2008 Mt Vernon Avenue, a single property, is best known for the Evening Star restaurant and its patio. But the two wooden buildings, at the rear and on the north side, are the oldest commercial buildings on the Avenue and among the oldest in the Del Ray area. Their claims to fame, however, derive as well from the law office of the very colorful five-time city council member Nick Colasanto in the small building at the rear in the 1960s, and the use of the property as a launching pad for the handful of eastern European Jewish immigrant merchants who would contribute so much to the Avenue starting in 1912.
The building at 2018 Mt Vernon Avenue is pretty unassuming now, but it figured prominently in the development of Del Ray in the second half of the 1920s. It also contributed more than its share of public drama to the small town. You can't know Del Ray without knowing about this commercial building with a really cool history.
After a singularly inauspicious beginning the house at 2200 Mt Vernon Avenue was home to two of Del Ray's more prominent and successful families. Unfortunately, it was torn down for an office building in 1988, but its story is here.
One of the most prominent members of the community, the town doctor and mayor, built his impressive house on Mt Vernon Avenue, next to 2200 Mt Vernon. The Yates family lived there from 1908 to 1937, then the Barrys were there until 1986. It was then converted to commercial use and recently taken over by Del Ray Pizzeria at 2216 Mt. Vernon Avenue. The outline of the house, discussed here, can still be seen from Mt Vernon Ave.
For decades in the 1950s to 1990s 2401 Mt Vernon was referred to as "The Old Bank Building". It had, in fact, only been a bank for less than a year, and that back in the early 1920s, but it just looked so much like a bank.
Not only a very handsome house in its own right, it has seen a very sympathetic addition to the rear. It saw more than its share of sorrow next door in the early 1920s, but went on to also host a happy productive family in the 1930s and 1940s. It is the the Creel house at 100 East Oxford in the Del Ray subdivision.
A highly distinctive house stood at 117 Randolph. It was a two-time amateur effort. Its first iteration featured a truly bizarre construction technique that may have been saved by large, sunny windows and stucco exterior. We don't know that for certain, because in the 1960s it was completely remodeled, again by a self-taught amateur,to add brick face and non-standard windows. The bricks on the outside so overloaded the foundation that by 2016 it proved impossible to save. It was torn down much to the detriment of our architectural diversity but to the relief of many neighbors.
One of the most distinctive houses in Del Ray is "The Castle" at 211 East Raymond. The complex shape and configuration and crenulated battlements cause it to stand out from all the nearby structures. It started out as the home of a widely age-disparate Italian immigrant couple with a rental unit for additional income, and when it left the family in 1960 it was transformed into a 3-unit rental with off-premises owners. The exterior is as it was in 1941, seven years after construction, but there are indications that the front section may have been an add-on shortly after completion. We will probably never know that.
You want some more drama, you say? Along with a really cool bungalow? Then the Thomas Row house at 31 Rosecrest is just for you. Read the fascinating story.
Amazingly, this fabulous large example of the classic American bungalow was actually built by two immigrant brothers from Russia, only twelve years after their arrival. It is not only beautiful, it served its family for over six decades. Take a look at 119 Stewart.
Proving that small can be beautiful is the nicely-proportioned 111 Stewart, built in 1926 by Lewis DeVaughan. The story of this modest gem is here.
Are you ready for three seriously cool houses? MB Harlow built three beautiful houses on what is now 1400-block Wayne Street in his new Cottage Park development to spur construction in the right direction. We are blessed that all three are not only still standing, but are well preserved, including their unique windows. They are Wayne's Three Sisters (plus another house, actually).
The Nalls family moved to Del Ray subdivision in 1894 and immediately put up their beautiful folk Victorian at what is now 403 East Windsor. Their son moved out to put up his own house just down the block at 416 East Windsor in 1907. You can read about them here.
German immigrants preceded the long-lasting Roberts family into their house at 201 E Windsor, the distinctive row house at the corner of Mt Vernon. See more here.
The Early Developers
The initial developers of the Del Ray area followed the business practice of the time, simply laying down a grid of streets and marking off lots that were sold bare. The first local firm to challenge this was the Potomac Improvement Company which, in 1908, bought plots of land and built houses "on spec". The duplexes were certainly attractive, but their commercial success was modest. You can read more here.
The Mt Ida Realty Company also sold bare lots, starting in 1909, but initial sales were slow. To prod folks into buying lots, and those who already had lots into building on them, the company put up six houses in 1912. Five of them were well-proportioned classic American four-squares of varying size, while the sixth was a gem, a very early east coast bungalow. Next time you cruise down Commonwealth near the MvCS and the rec center you can glance across the street and see two beautifully-preserved examples, including the gorgeous early bungalow.
JE Martin put up a series of bungalows along Glebe Road, then a set of three similar houses in Del Ray that simply defy architectural classification during the mid-1920s. This initial effort out of the way, he then moved on. In 1927 he looked to the south of the Town of Potomac to East Nelson (then called Linden) Avenue and put up a row of seven nice, classic American bungalows. Six of them were almost identical, distinguished only by the shape of the dormer on the roof front, while the seventh featured a full gable over the porch. These seven essentially define the north side of the 200-block of East Nelson and make it a really unique block. Lest he be accused of selling out to conventional design aesthetics, he then put up two houses on East Windsor at 307 and 307A that were mirror images facing each other over a common driveway rather than facing the street.
He was by no means an admirable man, but Newman Raymond and his wife Esther dominated the Del Ray building market in the late 1930s with distinctive houses and large apartment buildings. You can read about him here. They built quite a few nice houses, and the Alexandria Square Condos also began their lives here, as the Raymond Apartments, the first such in the area.
James Cato was not actually a developer. Instead, he put up houses for his family. He started with a wood-frame bungalow at 211 Ashby, then sold that to his brother William and put up the handsome brick four-square at 307 Clifford. Finally, he put up a brick bungalow at 311 Clifford, although apparently he had given up on suburban life by that time and was ready to move back to rural Virginia. Following that, the houses had several long-term occupants, including two who took up uniforms, one probably bringing unpunished discredit upon it, the other worthy service.