18th Century Hi-Tech

Have you ever noticed those strange lines on the sidewalk at the corner of
Cameron and Royal outside of Gadsby's Tavern?

The ring of dark bricks indicates the boundary of a rare piece of 18th century technology still visible today. This subterranean brick-lined shaft is conveniently located directly next to Gadsby's Tavern. 

Around 1793 John Wise, the man who built what is today known as Gadsby's Tavern, using modern technology (of his day), had this Ice Well constructed for his new high-end establishment,City Tavern.

Wise designed his well to be accessible from the basement of the tavern through a brick-lined vaulted passageway and also included access by way of a removable panel from the street level.

Although barely visible in more recent years, it is considered architecturally significant since it one of the few remaining urban ice wells. As part of Alexandria's preparations for the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations, the nearly-forgotten ice well was excavated and a viewing area was added.


Here you see the inside of the ice well during the original renovations and the current viewing deck. 

The ice well is approximately 17’3” at its widest point and about 11’9” deep at the lowest excavation point, which is a very large size for such urban facilities. It could hold at least 68 tons of ice, which would last at least through most of the summer.

Ice in the 18th Century was used in:
  - Preserving perishable food
  - Cooling beverages (although not as ice cubes!)
  - Making ice cream and other frozen desserts

Ice cream was served at the homes of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison as well as in confectioner’s shops and taverns and was considered quite a trendy new treat.  Gadsby's Tavern also sold ice for home use.  In a June 1805 newspaper advertisement Mr. Gadsby offered to sell ice from his ice well at 8 cents a pound.

If you would like to know more about ice and ice wells in 18th and ealy 19th century America, check out the slide show below which was prepared by a Gadsby's Tavern Museum intern. Also, the Virginia Department of History has highlighted the Tavern and its ice well in our  on-line slide show .

Most recently in the Ice Well's history there has been a multi-year effort to repair decades of weather damage and make use of more advanced methods of preservation and presentation. The Museum has begun planning for this major renovation program.  GTMS has already raised over $137,000 in support of the restoration and improvement project, which will not involve any government funding.  The Museum Staff has raised a great deal more through events and grants.  We have a little over $50,000 left to raise even though the construction and restoration process is completed.


Would you like to help preserve this unique bit of 18th Century urban technology and make it a more inviting 21st Century experience?

You can donate on line by going to the Office of Historic Alexandria's web shop