Week 4: Carlyle House


Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority Mission: The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority enhances the communities of Northern Virginia and enriches the lives of their citizens through  the conservation of regional natural and cultural resources. It provides diverse regional recreational and educational opportunities, and fosters an understanding of the relationships between people and their environment.

Carlyle House Historic Park, in Alexandria, Virginia is one of the parks maintained by NVRPA. My visit began with a short video, followed by a tour given by a gracious and knowledgeable docent, and ending with a few minutes of wandering the gardens by myself.

I hadn’t known much about John Carlyle before my visit. As I learned about him during the movie and tour, I noticed that interpretive strategies included a thematic focus on Carlyle House’s involvement in, and parallels with, the larger story of American history.

Carlyle’s prosperity exemplifies the American Dream, but it was not accomplished alone. John Carlyle’s financial success reflected an entrepreneurial spirit and savvy in maneuvering within the trades of his day. His house in Alexandria was right by a busy port, and its architecture and furnishings were selected to show his wealth and refined taste.

Carlyle's enslaved butler Moses

But as we walk through the house, it is not Carlyle we see hard at work. Instead, the mannequins tending the household are slaves. Slave mannequins hover over the beds in the children’s bedrooms, while their own beds are piles of blankets on the hallway floor. The video makes clear that Carlyle’s fortune would not have been possible without his many slaves.

Carlyle’s changing understanding of his own identity epitomizes the coming of age and yearning for independence in the colonies leading up to the Revolutionary War. When he first came to America, he thought of the move as temporary, to be followed by moving back to Scotland. His front hallway is filled with images of home.

The English General Edward Braddock used Carlyle House to meet with five colonial governors to discuss military plans for the French and Indian War. After the British promised an easy military victory and subsequently failed, colonial citizens began to question the motherland’s ability to protect them in the new world; these doubts were matched by frustration with the British arrogance they perceived. Carlyle was one of many who, faced with these events, began to see himself as an American rather than a temporary visitor from across the pond. Meanwhile, Braddock and his troops had worn out their welcome in Carlyle’s home itself, having behaved as ungrateful guests who may have partied a little too hard.

The pictures show Carlyle's native land... but his window looks westward on Alexandria and America

In the last century, the fate of Carlyle House reflects America’s growing consciousness of historic preservation. A hotel was built in front of Carlyle House in the 1800s, blocking the view of the house from the street. In the ensuing century, the house fell into disrepair. The docent explained that as Alexandria developed and its population grew, an “out with the old, in with the new” attitude prevailed.

In the 1960s and 70s, however, the idea that historic buildings should be preserved rather than discarded took hold. The hotel was torn down, the house was restored, and it opened as a historic house museum in 1976, helping to spur what we enjoy today: an Old Town full of museums and celebrations of history.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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