Virginia

Ballston Common: The Birth, Death, & Rebirth of the D.C. Area's First Major Shopping Mall

“To describe this shopping center in words is a bit difficult because of its extremely high efficiency in the use of every square foot.”

While it may be hard today to imagine the shopping center at the intersection of Arlington’s Glebe Rd. and Wilson Blvd. as an exciting and advanced piece of architectural planning, it truly was at its opening in 1951.  At the time, it was the largest suburban retail space on the East Coast, and the first ever to be built around a parking garage (which also happened to be the largest parking garage in the United States). This sort of retail design was an absolute novelty, and an early hallmark of both the post-War evolution of the American suburb, as well as the DC area’s growing population. Its name, however, was a little on the nose: Parkington.

The Little Italy Under the Parkway

The last three residents of Arlington's Little Italy: Josh (Guiseppe) Conduci, Carl (Carmelo) Conduci, and Philip (Filippo) Natoli. (Reprinted with permission of DC Public Library, Star Collection at Washington Post)

Few would believe that Arlington County once contained its own Little Italy – and few would recognize it if they saw it. Unlike the prototypical image of urban markets and crowded apartments, what Arlingtonians once referred to as "Little Italy" (or "Little Sicily") was an isolated makeshift village occupied by Italian quarrymen and their families on the banks of the Potomac, accessible only by footpath. 

The Potomac's Houseboats of Ill Fame

The Potomac River waters near Alexandria, shown here during the Civil War, were filled with arks that offered a variety of illicit entertainments during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Image Source: Library of Congress)

If you thought pirates were the only ones able to get into trouble on the water, you’d be wrong. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Potomac River was full of boats – or arks as they were called – that provided all sorts of illicit temptations for parties that were so inclined. While efforts were made to enforce the laws of Virginia, Maryland and the District, the arks’ ability to float downriver to avoid authorities made them a persistent problem.

Judith McGuire (Source: FindAGrave.com)

Civil War Alexandria Through the Eyes of Judith Brockenbrough McGuire

When the Civil War began looming on the horizon, Judith Brockenbrough McGuire (1813-1897) was the wealthy wife of a prominent citizen in Alexandria, and like many on both sides of the conflict, she believed in a speedy and perhaps even non-violent end to the conflict. In the days leading up to the war, McGuire recorded in her diary the increasingly depressing landscape of Alexandria. Give it a read and take a step back in time!

George Alfred Townsend in 1899. (Source: Wikipedia)

"Some of the noblest residences in Alexandria had been desecrated to licentious purposes."

One of the most remembered war correspondents was also the youngest reporter in the Civil War, George Alfred Townsend. Born in 1841, Townsend’s reports on the Battle of Five Forks and the Lincoln assassination gained him wide recognition, but before he had the chance to write those, Townsend visited the occupied city of Alexandria. Among his observations: "It would not accord with the chaste pages of this narrative to tell how some of the noblest residences in Alexandria had been desecrated to licentious purposes; now how, by night, the parlors of cosey homes flamed with riot and orgie [sic]."

"More Tons, Less Huns": The Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation in Alexandria, VA: 1917-1922

Back of peoples' heads in the foreground with a large boat in the background.

World War I fueled a rapid buildup in industrial production, and, in particular, merchant shipbuilding. America needed cargo vessels—fast—and, as luck would have it, Alexandria was prepared. Between 1910 and 1912, the Army Corps of Engineers had infilled a 46-acre bay and wildlife preserve – Battery Cove – near Jones Point Lighthouse. The land’s proximity to the Potomac River and its enormous size made it an ideal site for shipbuilding. Alexandrians rejoiced when the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation came to their city but the enthusiasm would not last.

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