The beauty of one’s home, neighborhood, and community is easy to forget, especially in an age as transient and rootless as ours. Yet, it’s in the quiet moments or on a historic occasion in your hometown that you are pulled back to consider the things that surround you. “Coming home” is an important process of the mind, allowing us to see the mysticism in the ordinary.
In 1921, G.K. Chesterton went on a grand speaking tour of the United States. A year later, he wrote about his experiences in What I Saw in America. The book is full of keen observations, but one of my favorite passages is one where Chesterton compares two great American cities. For him, Philadelphia breathed the ethos of tradition, while New York embodied the buzz of constant novelty and heedless excitement—a visual contrast of stately Federal classicism versus looming skyscrapers:
It is at least as possible for a Philadelphian to feel the presence of Penn and Franklin as for an Englishman to see the ghosts of Alfred and Becket. Tradition does not mean a dead town; it does not mean that the living are dead but that the dead are alive. It means that it still matters what Penn did two hundred years ago; I could never feel in New York that it mattered what anyone did an hour ago.
Chesterton’s tour also took him to Boston, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. on the east coast, and St. Louis and Nashville in the south.
I don’t know if, while visiting our nation’s capital, Chesterton made a side-trip to my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. But if he had, I like to think he would have been mightily pleased. Walking the streets of Old Town, you enter into communion with the country’s colonial and Revolutionary past—the same sensation you get in Philadelphia or Boston, but on a much more intimate scale.
You feel this especially during the city’s Presidents’ Day festivities, which are concluding as I write. George Washington veritably haunts Alexandria: Mount Vernon, the estate he built and lived in is here, as are a number of places he frequented—including Christ Church, where he worshiped, and Gadsby’s Tavern, where he dined and danced (as did Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette). In the month of February you can see the youthful Pater Patriae inhabiting the town in the person of an excellent reenactor (I have never been able to find out his name; he never comes out of character). George Washington is our Santa Claus, and his gentlemanly benevolence radiates forth as he walks the cobblestone streets and alleyways recounting anecdotes to visitors. Chesterton’s notion of the dead being alive is realized in Alexandria around Presidents Day.
Alexandria was a trade center and seaport during Washington’s lifetime and for a long time after, and Market Square at the center of town is a remnant of this; nowadays, you can buy farmers’ produce there on Saturday mornings. Continuing down toward the Potomac River waterfront, where torpedoes were built during World War II, one finds the tranquility of restful waters—a world apart from the buzz of Washington, D.C., even though a stone’s throw from it.
On the same side of town is St. Mary’s Church, Virginia’s first Catholic parish. It was built on the initiative of George Washington’s aide-de-camp, John Fitzgerald, and with a financial contribution from Washington himself. In 2018 St. Mary’s was declared a minor basilica, an honor which gives me great pride. Washington’s own place of worship was, as mentioned, Christ Episcopal Church, where you can sit for a spell in his pew.
The town changes hues and guises with the seasons. In Spring, when you will be reading this, it seems to breathe the freshness of the nation’s youngest days. In December—the time of a parade celebrating the city’s Scots heritage—it takes on a Dickensian aura as oil lamps burn outside Victorian row houses. In summer it is often sweltering, much to my chagrin (the area used to be a swamp and still feels like it). My favorite is fall, when the foliage sparkles against the brick buildings and some avenues seem positively Parisian.
Alexandria has a pleasant, small-scale cultural life. I enjoy attending concerts and lectures at the Lyceum, a venerable Greek Revival building at the center of town. It was built in the 1830s as a library, cultural and scientific center, later serving as a hospital ward for wounded soldiers during the Civil War.
Presiding like a beacon over the city is the imposing George Washington Masonic Memorial, whose architecture carries a hint of Alexandria, Egypt to Alexandria, Virginia (it was modeled after the Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World). After hiking up the long steps of the Memorial, you are rewarded with an impressive bird’s-eye view of the city by which you can see clear down to the Potomac River. At that moment Alexandria appears not as a sprawling suburb but a small town, and something like a doll’s house.
Sitting on Market Square on a fair-weather day, gazing upon the gabled roofs of the Federal and Georgian buildings, I am carried away from our harried age. I ponder the idea of the antique, which Chesterton discusses in his book, and how it applies to America. Chesterton says he finds the same “historic emotion” in Philadelphia and Boston as he finds in Greece and Rome. He further implies that this emotion is one that Americans themselves do not appreciate, supposing that it exists only in the Old World. One often hears the truism that America’s history is short, and while that may be true in a strictly numerical sense, our history has great evocative power, and it can be revisited through the magic of place and architecture.
There is another wonderful line of Chesterton’s, from Orthodoxy, about how he went the length of the world, then realized that he had arrived back home where he started. The beauty of one’s home, neighborhood, and community is easy to forget, especially in an age as transient and rootless as ours. It’s in the quiet moments or on a historic occasion that you are pulled back to consider the things that surround you. “Coming home” is an important process of the mind, allowing us to see the mysticism in the ordinary.
Of course, it helps if you live in a place that gives rise to such thoughts. It is a blessing not to live amid high-rise apartments and steel-and-glass office buildings. The sense of tradition that comes from living in a historic town—a town that has retained its history—fills one with appreciation, yet also with longing for things that are long past and irretrievable on this earth, except through the power of the imagination. Yet by delving deep down into your home, you come up with unexpected riches—and the assurance of being where you belong.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Bird’s Eye View of Alexandria, Va.” (1863) by Charles Magnus (1826-1900), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.