Some Dates in the History of Seminary Hill
First humans were seasonal—hunting in the streams and valleys
1700s agricultural fields and country estates near mills on Cameron Run
1823 Virginia Theological Seminary established
1839 Episcopal High School founded
1860-5 Union military defenses during Civil War for Washington DC
1898 First School for African Americans established in The Fort [Ward]
1925 The Fort school became Seminary School located where T. C. Williams School is now
1950s Seminary Hill became a suburb of Washington, DC
1951 Land swap—Seminary Hill went from Fairfax County to the City of Alexandria
1956 Hammond High School built
Around 1960 St. Stephen’s School moved to the current location of SSSAS High School
1962 Alexandria Hospital moved from Old Town (1872) to current location
1964 Fort Ward Park established after The Fort community moved to SHA Area 1
1970s Seminary Hill Civic Association started—zoning issues, i.e. Alexandria Commons and Eisenhower Connector
1972 T. C. Williams built on site of African American school
1979 Hammond became a Junior High
1988 SHA incorporated
1990 Office of Historic Alexandria published a plan for Historic Preservation on Seminary Hill
1992 Seminary/Strawberry Hill Small Area Plan published by City
1993 Hammond Middle School expanded
1997 Beltway exit to Eisenhower Ave built, ends at Ben Brenman Park across from Jordan St.
2002 Bluestone Connector opposed by SHA
2004 T. C. Williams High School rebuilt
Some Notable Homes on Seminary Hill—Areas 4, 5, and 9
—family home 1830 –4007 Moss Place
--gate house/Arthur Herbert House 1815, since been rebuilt—at 3908 Seminary Road
--another 19th century farmhouse –4018 Seminary Road
Vaucluse—destroyed during Civil War, rebuilt 1901, hospital site, house torn down in 1972
Cameron—house torn down in Civil War—General Samuel Cooper’s property, Fort Williams
Smuckers house—1923—on Cameron property
Hoof cottage—1793—death house during Civil War
Worthington’s home used as hospital
Charles Goodman House—1800s farmhouse remodeled i1954 in Frank Lloyd Wright style
History on the Hill: The Seminary’s Aspinwall Hall
Virginia Theological Seminary hall was once used to house Episcopal students.
This article is the second in a five-part series of historic homes in the Seminary Hill area of Alexandria.
Virginia Theological Seminary’s Aspinwall Hall today houses administrative offices for the Episcopal institution, but perhaps hundreds of men called the brick building home from the 1850s to 1940s.
Topped by an imposing white tower, the three-story hall off Seminary Road was completed in 1858. The first floor housed classrooms, while the two upper floors were student dormitories, said Rev. Robert Prichard, the seminary’s professor of church history and author of the recent pictorial book on the seminary’s history, “Hail! Holy Hill!"
The occupants were all white male students, as the seminary didn’t admit its first black student until the 1950s or women until the 1960s.
The donors to build Aspinwall Hall were brothers William Henry and John Lloyd Aspinwall, who were railroad men, Prichard said. “Their biggest coup was the built a railroad across the isthmus of Panama before the Panama Canal,” he said. “And there’s a little town to this day in Panama called Colon, which is the Spanish spelling for Columbus, originally named Aspinwall, built by the brothers for the Caribbean side.”
The Aspinwalls were among the most influential donors to the Episcopal Church in the 1800s, not only funding Aspinwall Hall but also paying for buildings at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Chicago and Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin.
During the Civil War, the campus was occupied by Union troops. Teaching stopped, and the campus was used as a hospital. To this day, visitors can see where a Wisconsin regiment volunteer scratched his name into the woodwork of the hall.
The inscription appear to read, “Taylor.” “It is kind of interesting to see they left their mark,” Prichard said.
There were 10 dorm rooms on each floor, and each room had its own fireplace. The privy was located to the back of the building. At some point in the 1890s, the seminary constructed a porch on the second story of the front of the building. It was taken off in a renovation in the 1960s.
“Allegedly, students have told me who were there then that people would go out their windows on the second floor and have water balloon fights with people on the other side of the dorms,” Prichard said.
Another interesting facet of the building is that the brickwork on what is now the front side of Aspinwall is of a lesser quality than the brickwork on the back end. “(The back end) was clearly designed to face downtown Alexandria, our presentation side,” Prichard said. “ … We used to claim that this dominated the Alexandria skyline and was the largest building around, but of course we were not in Alexandria until the 1950s, because Quaker Lane was the western boundary of Alexandria.”
The top of the tower also offers a view of Washington and its landmarks. “It’s a wonderful view on the top of the tower,” Prichard said. “Until the 1990s, on the Fourth of July, we opened the top of the tower and people could come up and look and watch the fireworks.
“And then a balcony fell down at the University of Virginia, and our business office and our attorney got very worried about potential liability, so we haven’t done that since then. It used to be a kind of nice, interesting moment to get the view.”
The building today includes historical photographs, including one of the class of 1856, and a reproduction of a portrait of William Henry Aspinwall, the original of which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
The hall also has a dark chapter in its history. Mount Vernon Estate rented slaves to contractors who did work on large buildings, including the Smithsonian Castle. The seminary as an institution had no slaves, although two faculty members had slaves.
“A logical guess, but not proof, because we have no final paper trail, is that some of the servants, slaves from Mount Vernon worked in building Aspinwall Hall,” Prichard said. “We don’t know that, but the Capitol was built by slave labor, the Smithsonian by slave labor. The contractors used slave labor ... so they got all the big jobs. So that’s probably the case.”
The building’s interior has been renovated multiple times. The seminary built a new set of dormitories in the late 1940s, and eventually the upper stories of Aspinwall were abandoned and put to other uses.