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Historic Preservation: A Lifetime Commitment

A leader for all ages becomes part of history she preserved.

Alexandria is a city about history, and its past is intertwined with American history. For the past 22 years, one woman has passionately preserved that intermingling.

Jean Taylor Federico has been a major contributor, steward and leader in the preservation and revitalization of Alexandria's historical journey from pre-Revolutionary War to the present day.

On Dec. 30 she will retire as director of the Office of Historic Alexandria.

"It's been a great job. You get to do so many things," Federico said sitting in her Lloyd House office, the house itself an historic Alexandria treasure.

Prior to coming to Alexandria in 1983, Federico served as director and curator of the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, D.C., and as registrar at the University of Maryland Art Gallery.

"This job has been a much broader experience than either of the other two. Dealing with the history of an entire community and tying that into the national history has been a fascinating challenge," Federico said. "This community is really tied to our national history."

A native of Sacramento, Calif., Federico received her bachelor's degree from Northwestern University and her master's from the University of Michigan.

"I actually completed all the class work for my doctorate but never finished the dissertation. I wanted to get into the real world," Federico said.

That real world brought her and her husband to the Washington Metropolitan area in 1966. He was a physician at Walter Reed Army Hospital until his death from cancer.

WHEN ASKED what she considered her most memorable accomplishments during her tenure she immediately listed three; achieving accreditation for the three city museums; building the Lyceum historic collection; and working with the African-American community to bring forth their historical contributions to Alexandria.

"Accreditation is a very rigorous procedure, but it's also very worthwhile. We were able to strive for excellence and meet those standards," she said. Gadsby's Tavern Museum, The Lyceum, and Fort Ward are all accredited.

"When I came here the Lyceum actually had little or nothing in the way of historical artifacts. Now it has a wealth of items of which we are very proud," Federico said.

She said working with the African-American community in getting the Black History Museum and park established was another prime accomplishment.

"In each of these instances, and throughout my work here, there have been so many great people to work with," she said.

That feeling is mutual throughout the city.

"IT'S BEEN AN absolute pleasure to work with Jean over the years. She has a fund of knowledge of Alexandria history and has provided us with a storehouse of insight," said Ellen Stanton, chair of the Historic Alexandria Resource Commission.

Charles L. Trozzo, chair of the Alexandria Historical and Preservation Commission, shared that respect.

"Jean Federico is the consummate professional in a difficult city government position. She combines complete knowledge of history, architecture, and decorative arts, so basic to our heritage, with unique abilities to manage a substantial organization," he said. "She not only deals with her counterparts across the nation but also articulates her programs with the city government while providing an easy and friendly liaison with the public. Working with her has been a distinct pleasure and we will miss her tremendously."

Federico's management and organizational skills were of particular note to Philip Brooks, who served as chair of Alexandria's 250th Anniversary Committee.

"It has been a privilege to work with Jean both professionally and personally throughout the years. I appreciate the leadership she has given to the city and to all the commissions and committees she has served. We are certainly going to miss her," Brooks said.

Alexandria Mayor William Euille said Federico is extremely knowledgeable not only about Alexandria, but also nation and world events.

"I've known Jean throughout all my years on City Council. She has been a great asset to the city and its citizens. We are far better off today in the preservation of our historic properties because of her efforts. We will miss her dearly," he said.

What Federico is going to miss is being able to use her leadership and management skills in dealing with the things associated with the upcoming 400th Anniversary of Jamestown.

"We have a real role to play in this statewide celebration," she said.

Locally, her main regret about retirement focuses on the Freedmen's Cemetery project.

"This is going to be a really fascinating project and a really good accomplishment for the City," Federico said.

BUT, SHE IS ALSO looking forward to doing nothing for a while. "There are just so many meetings to attend and other things to take care of that there is very little private time," she said.

She has two daughters. Lydia, lives in Chevy Chase, Md., with her husband, Chris Dolan and 3-year-old son, Peter.

Sylvia lives in Lewiston, Maine, with her husband Michael Hanrahan. They have two children, Vinnie, two-and-a-half and Fiona, six months.

"I usually try to visit them in the spring or summer rather than face those Maine winters. This year I went up in the late fall and just missed the snow," she said.

In addition to spending more time with her children and grandchildren she also plans to travel more, especially to Spain where her twin sister, Jane, lives with her husband. "She met him while we were touring Bilbao, Spain. Now she lives there," Federico said.

As she leaves her post, the town's historic legacy will continue.

"Next year our Historic District designation will be 60 years old and Council is considering an historic preservation summit," Federico said. "This will be a real opportunity to make some very meaningful decisions about historic preservation."

Federico said one of the most persistent issues will be raising money, which is both a local and national problem.

"Money is the real challenge. When the American Bicentennial occurred in 1976 it gave a real boost to historic preservation," Federico said. "But, that was nearly 30 years ago. Now, we all struggle to preserve our history and heritage."

During a recent retirement party at Gadsby's, Federico was presented with a memorabilia album, covering not only her career, but highlights of her life. One of the photos depicted her and her sister as teenagers attending an historic dedication ceremony in Sacramento with their mother.

"I started early in this career. And, it's not over yet," Federico said.