Col. John Carlyle described Aug. 1, 1753 as "a fine beginning." It was the day he and his wife, Sally, moved into their newly completed home, the home where she gave birth to a baby boy.
Col. Carlyle described both events in a letter he wrote 10 days later to his brother George, a letter that now rests on a pedestal in the parlor of The Carlyle House at 121 N. Fairfax St.
Last Friday night, Carlyle’s letter greeted visitors at the beginning of the 250th anniversary celebration of an Alexandria landmark, 250 years to the day that he made his long-awaited entrance to his new home.
"We have borrowed three original letters written by John Carlyle to his brother. One of the others tells of the frustrations and troubles John experienced in building this house," said Cindy Major, a museum assistant, as she pointed out various items of interest.
"John and George also exchanged portraits of one another so that each could see how the other looked at that time," Major explained.
IN MANY WAYS, Carlyle House parallels John’s own life. Although he was very successful in business and commerce, his personal life almost seemed star-crossed.
"Out of 11 children by his two wives, only three survived — two by his first wife, Sarah ‘Sally’ Fairfax, and one by his second, Sybil West," Major said.
His life seemed plagued with troubles from the beginning. As reported by James D. Munson in his book, "Col. John Carlyle, Gent., A True and Just Account of the Man and His House," heavy rains in fall 1752 forced him to rebuild the walls of his home.
Grumbling about sandstone's vulnerability to wet weather and the crumbling mortar, Carlyle noted, "If I had suspected it would have been what I have meet with, I believe I shoud made shift with a very small house."
But he completed the project on his waterfront home in time for Sally to deliver the baby.
WITH JOHN CARLYLE'S death in 1780, his last will and testament gave the house and its contents to his young son, George William Carlyle. But as Munson relates, 11 months after the father's death, his teenage son “died in the Battle of Eutaw Springs."
That set off a series of near-death experiences for the house. It was occupied by a series of families and was known by their names, not Carlyle's.
Through myriad transactions the Carlyle plot of land eventually became the site of The Mansion House Hotel. In 1855, the hotel built a four-story addition that obliterated the view of the house. During the Civil War the hotel became a Union hospital, and in the late 1800s it and the house were converted into apartments.
“The apartment complex survived as rental units until 1972,” wrote Munson, and the owners also decided to convert the house to a museum, opening in the early 20th Century.
A move to convert the land to business uses came in the post-World War II period, but Carlyle House found a savior in Lloyd L. Schaeffer, who maintained the house's museum status until the 1960s.
THEN CAME urban renewal. Alexandria, like so many cities across the nation, got caught up in "out with the old, in with the new" hysteria.
With the approaching bicentennial, however, came a renewed awareness of preserving Colonial history. In 1969, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority planned an open-space, urban development centering on John Carlyle's restored house would be a centerpiece.
"But first we had to buy the old hotel and then get it removed from the list of historic structures," said Walter Mess, NVRPA chairman at the time. "That took us three years. It was all done with money from Alexandria, Fairfax City and Arlington."
"There were very few furnishings in the house. The real effort was in the architectural restoration,” said Julia Claypool, who served as curator and director of the Carlyle House Museum during the restoration and is now serves with the NVRPA. “At first most of our efforts were in research."
That research paid off, said Mary Ruth Coleman, the museum's present director. "A great deal has been done to bring in period furnishings and other antique items."
One of the most spectacular is in the upstairs center hall. It is a Philadelphia highboy in the Chippendale style on loan for one year. "We're hoping it will be extended," said Coleman.
Throughout the house are silver pieces from the period, paintings, and various furnishings ranging from a tea table in the front parlor to a sideboard table with claw-and-ball feet.
“I love this place,” said Jim Williams, a docent at the house for the past six years. "There are so many ties to history."
AS THE CROWD gathered on the terrace overlooking the gardens leading down to Lee Street, they were reminded that John Carlyle's house was waterfront property at the time of its construction.
Lee Street was then known as Water Street. "There was a 20-foot drop into the river at the end of what is now the garden area," Major explained.
As he cut the 250th birthday cake, Mayor William D. Euille summed up the saga of The Carlyle House and its journey through time.
"One of the beautiful things about Alexandria is to recall its history," he said. "Being here in the home of one of its founders is very exciting."