In the late 1700s, George Gilpin, an enterprising Revolutionary War Colonel under George Washington, and Johnathan Hall purchased a large portion of waterfront between Prince Street and King Street. They had visions of expanding their business interests along the port, but first they had to literally expand the waterfront. During Gilpin and Hall’s ownership they “banked out” the seafloor along the riverbank, filling it with dirt to create more land, thereby expanding the east side of 211 Strand Street and adding several blocks onto the city.
By the end of the 18th century, Alexandria was among the busiest ports in the nation—an international port of entry to the United States. Ships filled the harbor, commerce thrived and the “sound of the hammer and trowel were at work everywhere,” including at the Watermark site where industrious businessmen coveted the location. Early use of the land included a ship chandlery, plaster mill, barrel manufactory, and merchant warehouses for coal and lumber.
In late August of 1814, the British brought the War of 1812 to the region, burning nearly all of Washington, DC’s public buildings, including the Capitol and the Executive Mansion. Aware of the impending danger to which they would be virtually defenseless, Alexandria’s Mayor, Charles Simms, petitioned for additional resources and defenses to protect the city. Unfortunately, his pleas went unheeded as all the city’s resources and men had previously left to consolidate forces for a larger regional defense. Recognizing the vulnerability of the city and seeking to save it from destruction, Simms surrendered Alexandria to the British along with all shipping goods, merchandise, and ordinance stockpiles. While this cost the city immensely and Simms was initially censured, many came to realize the number of lives and property that was spared as a result of Simms’ actions. He almost certainly saved the city from destruction. Mayor Simms’ actions and the risk to his own reputation and professional career ultimately laid the foundation for Alexandria’s return to prosperity.
The next time the town would be occupied would be during the Civil War, when the US Quartermaster General eyed the warehouses along Strand Street and seized them to use as commissary storehouses to fuel the Union’s mission.
After the government returned the property to its owners, all was peaceful along Strand Street until, in 1897, a fire broke out in the engine room of Bryant’s bone mill, quickly spread by a fierce wind, threatening the entire city. The fire was contained, but not before burning the entire block bounded by Strand, Duke, Union and Prince Streets. DeWilton Aitecheson’s coal and lumber business, which occupied part of the property that is now Watermark, was quickly destroyed. The other part of the property was owned by Philip Hooe, who stored and sold grain from the site. After the fire, Aitecheson purchased Hooe’s property, rebuilt, and remained in business at this location until 1978. Since then, it has served as office and retail space.
From the Piscataway Indians who settled along the shoreline in the early 17th century to occupations by the British, Union Civil War troops and enterprising Americans, Watermark’s property has been the subject of desire for centuries. And now it’s embarking on a new chapter, with facades that speak the language of historic architecture and modern living spaces that reflect the city’s Potomac views, urban lifestyles and timeless elegance.