John Carlyle would’ve built a smaller house if he’d known how much trouble his Virginia mansion would be.
This is according to a letter the British man wrote to his brother in the 1700s. Of course, the property was even more trouble to the nine slaves who had to maintain the estate, which was massive for the time period. The Carlyle mansion was four stories at a time when any residence taller than two stories was uncommon. Being built of stone instead of the more commonly used wood made it stand out even more.
In John Carlyle’s time, this section of the city – Fairfax Street – was waterfront property.
By marrying Sarah Fairfax, Carlyle became part of a prominent family that was distantly related to George Washington.
The house was built in 1753, and became a center of social and political life in the community.
A century later the property had changed hands so many times that no one knew who the Carlyles were and the mansion fell into disrepair.
NOVA Parks took it over and restored it, opening it to the public by the 1970s.
These are some of the facts I learned through a recent visit to the Carlyle House Historic Park in Alexandria. Our guide, Anne L’Heureux, took us through the Carlyle family’s world, which consisted of family portraits in every room, spinet lessons for children and period clothing.
Each room is set up to reflect not only the time period, but Carlyle’s interests. It is said that he enjoyed maps and prints, so there are maps and portraits – mostly of family members – in the rooms. Our guide described the dining room as the most important room in the house. That could be because it contains the original woodwork or because that is where Carlyle died in 1780. At different times of the year, the museum depicts his death with a coffin that is then taken up the street.
Some of the museum’s decor is original, but certain items needed to be replicated. In the sitting room on the upper level, there are three mannequins depicting the clothing of Carlyle's wife, Sarah, one of their daughters, and associate, Gen. Edward Braddock. Braddock is dressed in military garb, but Sarah and daughter are wearing dresses made out of the fabric of Sarah’s wedding gown. In the bedroom on the lower level, the museum used a copy of a bed because a descendant of the Carlyles had the original and didn’t want to part with it. The relative retired in recent years and gave it to the museum, L’Heureux said.
The outside of the house is just as important to see as the inside. It is surrounded by a garden with walking paths and a gazebo. There are posted signs with facts about the property, like how the Patuxent River was once closer to the house and that warehouses for storing goods were once there. Another sign lists the names of the slaves – Jerry, Joe, Cook, Penny, Charles, Nibreria, Cate, Moses and Nanny – and what life would have been like for them.
The house is in Old Town Alexandria and a visitor could easily make a full day out of the trip. There are several shops and restaurants nearby, as well as the Old Town Farmers Market. On a summer Saturday afternoon, the town was bustling with activity but the museum crowd was small. In fact, my tour group was made up of two – my husband and me. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable.
Museum tours are given hourly, at a cost of $5. Special events and school programs are offered throughout the year. For more information, please visit novaparks.com/parks/carlyle-house-historic-park