The History of 515 N. Washington Street
—City of Alexandria, Est. 1749 —
Alexandria's First Cotton Factory
On April 19, 1847, the Mount Vernon Manufacturing Company purchased this lot along North Washington Street. The present building on this site was completed a year later in 1848, becoming the city's first cotton mill. The four-story factory mill contained 124 looms with 3,840 spindles powered by two thirty horse-powered steam engines. During the 1850s, the factory complex also included a 40x50 foot picking house, an engine house with repair shop, a brick office, and a brick fireproof waste house. The factory employed 150 workers, mostly women, who worked eleven hour shifts and earned $12 to $17 per month.
In 1855 the directors decided to put the mill up for sale, and in 1858, John Rosencrantz of Philadelphia purchased the mill for $35,000.
Civil War Prison
A month after Virginia seceded from the Union, Federal troops crossed the Potomac River to occupy Alexandria and to quell any secession activities. Many residents, including many workers employed at the Mount Vernon Cotton Factory, fled Alexandria before the arrival of occupying forces. Left vacant, the Union army seized the cotton factory and converted it into the Washington Street Military Prison. The prison became the largest in Alexandria during the Civil War. It
primarily served as a temporary facility to house prisoners being transported to holding facility to house prisoners being transported to holding facilities located farther north During the height of its operations in October of 1864,the Washington Street Military Prison held over 1,400 prisoners, exceeding its planned capacity.
A plan dating from March of 1865 (above) shows the layout of the Washington Street Military Prison. A perimeter fence was erected around the factory, creating prison yards on both the north ad south sides of the building.
Return to Manufacturing: Portner's Brewery Bottling House
After the Civil War, the factory sat dormant until Robert Garrett of Baltimore, Maryland bought it in 1877. Efforts to revive cotton manufacturing on the property failed and the old cotton factory remained vacant for twenty years. In 1902, the Portner Brewing Company purchased the property from Garrett's heirs and converted the old cotton mill into a bottling plant.
Robert Portner, a German industrialist, first established the Portner Brewing Company in Alexandria in 1861. After the war, Portner pioneered the local production of lager beer, and he constructed a larger brewery one block to the southeast of this location at the 600 block of North St. Asaph Street. Because the brewery's bottling equipment could not keep
up with increased production capacity, Portner converted the former cotton factory into a bottling plant capable of producing 20,000,000 bottles per year.
Express Spark Plug Factory
With the closing of the brewery in 1916, the Portner Brewing Company sold many of their assets, including the bottling factory, to the Express Spark Plug Factory of America. The company was one of many spark plug manufacturers in the United States during the 1920s. After a run of 15 years, Express Spark Plug shut down manufacturing in 1928, once again leaving the old cotton factory vacant.
Residential Development: Belle Haven Apartments
John Loughran of Washington, D.C. purchased the property in 1928 from the Express Spark Plug Company. Loughran decided to repurpose the property for residential use; transforming the once industrial building into the Belle Haven Apartments. Loughran hired architect a. B. Lowstuter to renovate the building. To provide residential character to the exterior, Lowstuter designed a classically inspired portico constructed around the building's main entrance. Dormers were also added along the roof line, making the attic space more livable. The building served as an apartment building from 1935 until 1981 when it was redesigned for office use.