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Development Uncovers Urban Plantation

Colross emerges from under a layer of concrete.

When Diamond Properties announced a plan to build in the 1100 block of Oronoco Street, few people realized that the construction process would yield important discoveries about the history of Old Town Alexandria.

As a team of archeologists and historians hired by Diamond Properties is nearing the end of its study of the site, the story of Colross is unraveling. Each new discovery is adding to the existing body of work while suggesting new questions. Why was this plantation built in the urban core of the city, and what was life like for its inhabitants?

In the next few weeks, the team will conclude its study and the site will be destroyed.

IN 2003, when Diamond Properties first proposed building the Monarch condominiums, the Office of Historic Alexandria notified the developer of the possibility of discovering important archaeology on the site. According to an Aug. 22, 2003 memo to Diamond properties, certificates of occupancy would not be issued until a final archaeological report was received and approved by the city.

"This was the site of Colross, an early 19th century estate which occupied the entire city block bounded by Henry, Pendleton, Oronoco and Fayette streets," wrote Alexandria archaeologist Pam Cressey. "The applicant must hire an archaeological consultant to prepare a Documentary Study (including a set of Ground Impact Maps) and conduct test excavations for an Archaeological Evaluation."

Because of the city's ordinance encouraging archeology of historic sites, Diamond properties hired R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates. Martha Williams, the consultant's historian, has become the expert on the secrets that are now unfolding at Colross.

"It's amazing that anything survived," said Williams. "I don't think that anyone was prepared for what did survive."

Archaeologists have discovered an intact basement, including an elegant herringbone floor. The design is repeated in several walkways that connect the main house at 1111 Oronoco St. to numerous outbuildings, including a kitchen, a cistern, a stable and other buildings whose purpose is still unknown.

"All of this will ultimately be destroyed," said Williams, noting that the city is most interested in archeological data from the basement, cistern and well. "After a while, with a site like this, you've discovered all that you are going to find. And then it's just more of the same."

The next phase of the project will include a final report to the city archaeologist, and artifacts from Colross will be deposited to Alexandria Archaeology. In the end, a plaque erected by Diamond Properties will be all that remains.

<b>THE PROPERTY WAS</b> originally purchased by John Potts, a businessman who had speculative properties throughout Alexandria. According to a 1799 deed, he paid $100 down in silver and agreed to pay an annual rent of $133.33.

Potts, who was from Pennsylvania, became an active civil leader and leading businessman in Alexandria. He later went on be become a business partner with William Herbert, eventually becoming secretary of the Potomac Company. He began to build the house at 1111 Oronoco Street in 1800, advertising the property for sale later that year.

In late 1803, the property was purchased by Massachusetts native Jonathan Swift. He paid $9,000 for the complex, calling the estate "Belle Air" or "Grasshopper Hall." In 1822 and 1823, Swift presided over the City Council. He died in 1824. Although his body was rumored to be buried near the house, archaeologists have not been able to locate it.

In the 1830s, the property was purchased by Thomson Mason — a grandson of George Mason, whose career included serving as an attorney, jurist, judge and mayor. He renamed the estate "Colross" and set out to expand the existing structure and improve what was already there, installing the herringbone floors.

Mason died in 1839, and his body was originally buried in the family vault on the property. Fortunately for Diamond Properties, the bodies buried in the Mason vault were long ago moved to the Christ Church Cemetery on Wilkes Street. Moving bodies would have been a major undertaking that would have slowed the pace of the project.

<B>AFTER THE CIVIL WAR</B>, the property was purchased by lumber merchant William Smoot. He may have used the site for business purposes, taking advantage of its proximity to the railroad. In 1917, the tract was purchased by Willie Hoge, who built a large warehouse on the northern edge of the property.

In the 20th century, the block was used for a number of purposes: a electrical substation, a car wash and a printing company. But these were built over the preserved remains of Colross.

"I guess the most important lesson in all of this is that archaeology is always underneath us," said Cressy, the city archaeologist. "You always have to be a doubting Thomas about these things. And in this case, it worked."

Cressy says that information gathered from the site will be used in conjunction with other archaeological evidence to give the city a modern interpretation of the distant past.

"This is the only urban plantation that we've been able to record," she said, noting that none of the other urban plantations survived long enough to conduct archaeological research. "So, yeah, this is pretty significant."