City of Alexandria Freedom House 1315 Duke Street
Historical research and structural analysis guide the restoration of a 19th-century slave trading center and its transformation into a 21st-century museum chronicling the cruel legacy of enslavement in the Antebellum South.
City of Alexandria, Virginia
Historic Preservation, Cultural, Museums & Galleries, Visitor & Interpretive Centers
9, 760 SF
Originally built in 1812 as a private residence, a three-story Federalist-style row house in Alexandria soon acquired a much more sinister history: it grew into the headquarters for Franklin and Armfield, a large and highly profitable slave trading operation where thousands of enslaved humans were imprisoned and held before transport to slave markets in southern port cities. Although the original home had been remodeled multiple times and had fallen into disrepair, the city of Alexandria recognized its historic significance. It hired SmithGroup to analyze the structure’s condition, conduct additional historical research and make recommendations to guide the restoration of the building and its renovation into an interpretive museum and research center.
An earlier archeological dig and existing records established that the complex had been expanded multiple times, eventually covering nearly an entire block. Fortified with high walls, it included separate men’s and women’s “slave pens,” outdoor yards and assorted outbuildings. Because of SmithGroup’s work at sites such as the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site in Richmond, Virginia, the team was able to add to the existing knowledge of the Freedom House, particularly regarding the history and evolution of slavery facilities and the slave trade economy in the Chesapeake Bay region.
Historic photos and material analysis also aided in documenting construction history. Using probes and other sampling tools, the team examined paint, plaster, brick, mortar and wood samples to determine the date of various renovations and additions.
Meshing these new findings with prior research helped the team correlate physical changes to the site with a more detailed timeline of the complex’s evolution. It clarified what the property looked like and how it was utilized during the key “period of significance” in the mid-1800s when Franklin and Armfield was at the peak of its perverse success, generating profits that in today’s dollars would tally in the billions.
The resulting Historic Structure Report provides a range of recommendations for necessary upgrades to building structures and systems, and the potential removal of renovations not true to the period of significance. Accounting for land and budget constraints, suggested treatment options restore the home’s front façade to the period of significance and retain later additions to the complex for use as interpretive space. SmithGroup is now embarking on the next step, creating a master plan to address interior building treatments for a public museum and genealogy research center.
The Historic Structures Report (HSR) for 1315 Duke Street, the Freedom House Museum, was formally presented to the public on October 28, 2021 and is available on City of Alexandria's website here.