In the garish light of day, Gadsby’s Tavern in Old Town Alexandria could be mistaken for just another old building. Historic, of course, but old and strangely distant from the modern world.
At night, however, the tavern is transformed by candlepower. In the flickering glow of lanterns, the tavern seems alive with shadows from the past. People who work at the tavern say that experiencing the tavern at night in the glow of candlelight is an experience altogether different from touring the museum during the day.
"I know this sounds kind of dorky," said Liz Williams, assistant director at Gadsby’s Tavern. "But we always say that the building seems happier when it’s lit up by candlelight. There’s just something about it that’s different."
Experiencing Gadsby’s Tavern by candlelight has become such a popular experience that annual lantern-led tours have become a fixture of the Old Town scene. That’s why the museum will offer lantern-led tours every Friday in June, July and August unless the building has been rented for a special occasion. Even those who have already toured the tavern by day may be surprised at the secrets it yields at night.
"The people who stayed at Gadsby’s 200 years ago would have seen it by candlelight," said Amy Bertsch, spokeswoman for the Office of Historic Alexandria. "So this will give people a chance to experience the tavern the way Alexandria’s early visitors did."
THOSE WHO venture to follow the lantern into the darkened tavern will tour two buildings, one that was built in the 1780s and one that was constructed in the 1790s. Although they are from the same period, times had obviously changed for Alexandria after the American victory against the British. People who were staying for the night in the 1780s tavern would have slept in the crowded third-floor "dormier," sharing a bed with strangers. Those who ventured upstairs too late would end up sleeping on the floor.
"Ladies would not have stayed in a dormier," said Williams. "But they would have stayed at the City Hotel. So the contrast between the two buildings lets you see the evolution of hospitality in Alexandria."
The 1790s building on the corner of North Royal Street and Cameron Street, known for many years as the City Hotel, had the luxury of offering private rooms. One of the highlights of the lantern-led tours will be seeing the room where the mysterious Female Stranger died in 1816, undoubtedly more spooky at night when visitors are likely to get a chill up their spine when they learn about her strangely anonymous male companion.
Another highlight will be learning about George Washington’s many visits to the tavern, where he enjoyed the simple pleasures of life. According to one account of a 1798 visit documented by George Washington Parke Custis, John Gadsby announced that he had a "good store of canvas-back ducks in the larder."
"Very good sir," responded the former president in the candle-lit tavern. "Give us some of them, with a chafing-dish, some hominy and a bottle of good Madeira, and we shall not complain."