Written by Liz Williams
At home, the ice maker in the fridge provides cold drinks in an instant. At a birthday party, what is birthday cake without the ice cream? To the modern traveler, the rattle of the hotel ice machine can mean welcome refreshment or the interruption of a good night’s sleep (depending on one’s perspective).
The common thread in all of these stories is ice. Today, ice is so easily accessible that it is usually taken for granted. But in Alexandria, Virginia, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum’s 18th century ice well--a contributing feature to this National Historic Landmark--is taking center stage during a restoration and education campaign.
For our nation’s founding fathers, ice was a luxury. Forget the local convenience store! You had to wait for the river to freeze, cut sections of ice into blocks with an enormous saw, haul the blocks by cart to an ice well or ice house, drop the blocks down a hatch, melt the ice together to create one big ice blob, and pack the ice mound with straw for insulation.
The result wasn’t something you would want to actually put into your drink. In fact, ice was used to chill your beverage from outside the glass. And in the 18th century, ice cream was all the rage; popular flavors were vanilla and oyster.
In 1792, Alexandria entrepreneur John Wise built an ice well adjacent to his newly constructed City Tavern to cement the establishment’s position as simply the best place in town. Eleven feet deep with the capacity to hold 68 tons of ice, the ice mound was accessed by slaves via a small tunnel from the tavern basement. When John Gadsby took over the tavern’s management, having a ready supply of ice allowed him to host some pretty fabulous parties, the most famous was George Washington’s Birthnight (or birthday) Ball. One can envision the smile on George’s face as he sat back to enjoy his bowl of ice cream with his cake.
The massive scale of the Gadsby’s Tavern ice well is hard to imagine, which is why part of the brick was cut away and windows were installed during a renovation in the 1970s. Unfortunately, 35 years of time and grime have taken their toll. Plant growth is abundant and cracks are appearing throughout the well, threatening to undermine its structural integrity.
Working with a team of preservation professionals, a plan has been created to fully restore the ice well and improve the visitor experience. New viewing windows will even be designed to open so that guests can feel the blast of cool air from the ice well’s interior. The open-plan seating will provide an inviting atmosphere to those walking by day or night. New signage and special engraved stones will explain the importance of the ice well not only for the tavern, but for thousands of travelers along the Eastern Seaboard.
So often the big, “pretty” preservation projects get all the attention and fundraising dollars. But, it is the utilitarian structures that really tell the forgotten stories of the past: a time without electricity and refrigeration. Without the ice well, Alexandria’s thriving center of hospitality wouldn’t have been so thriving, or hospitable.
And just think...without the ice well, George Washington would have missed out on that vanilla –or oyster-flavored!--ice cream with his birthday cake.
Liz Williams is the assistant director at Gadsby's Tavern Museum, owned and operated by the City of Alexandria. She previously worked in the National Trust's Preservation Services department as well as Woodlawn/Pope-Leighey. Contact her by email at liz.williams[at]alexandriava[dot]gov (replace the bracketed text with the customary symbols).