Last Call! Help restore Gadsby's Taven Museum's 18th century refrigerator: the City Tavern Ice Well
The history of Gadsby’s Tavern (comprised of a c. 1785 tavern and the 1792 City Tavern) is, at its core, a story of American commerce and entrepreneurship. Community leaders, including those of the fledgling national government, met at Gadsby’s Tavern to conduct business and discuss the news of the day that arrived via ship in the busy port of Alexandria. Large, community celebratory events hosting America’s first six Presidents occurred at the tavern, including George Washington’s Birthnight Celebrations in 1798 and 1799 as well as Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 Inaugural Banquet. As travelers ventured to the new Federal City, Gadsby’s Tavern set the standard for the nation’s emerging hospitality industry.
A unique feature of the 1792 City Tavern is a subterranean ice well that provided the tavern business with a ready supply of ice. Harvested from the frozen Potomac River in the winter, ice was hauled by cart to the City Tavern and stored in the ice well. Ice was formed into a solid mound and covered with straw to preserve it for use through the summer months. The tavern keepers used this ice to provide chilled beverages and the most fashionable iced desserts – including flavored ice cream – to their patrons. In the full spirit of entrepreneurialism, John Gadsby, the tavernkeeper who made this site famous, sold ice to the public at an additional cost. While often taken for granted today, the availability of ice at Gadsby’s Tavern helped to distinguish the establishment as one of the finest of its kind in the 18th century.
The ice well was originally made visible to the public during the 1970s restoration of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. At this time, archaeologists excavated both outside and inside the ice well, and removed a small portion of the original ice well brick shaft to add a viewing window for the public. This 1970s design, combined with the passage of time and the harsh urban environment, has created the need for a comprehensive restoration today. For example, the viewing glass has become cloudy, making it almost impossible to see the interior of the ice well.
The City of Alexandria proudly owns and operates Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. In partnership with the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum staff, we, the Museum’s Friends organization, made the decision to undertake the fundraising effort to finance the ice well restoration without City funding. Working with architects and other consultants, the Museum staff, the Society, and other community stakeholders created a new vision for this often overlooked but extraordinary feature of the Museum.
The Historic Ice Well Restoration Project will restore the ice well as well as improve the visitor’s ability to learn about and experience this architectural marvel.
The entire project will be completed within the current footprint of the present-day ice well.
The ice well is an important and rare example of a commercial well in an urban environment. Most ice wells have been lost to “progress” as they have succumbed to office buildings, parking lots, and housing. Examples still exist at Monticello, Montpelier, and Mount Vernon, but these were created for private and not commercial use. Gadsby’s ice well tells the larger story of commerce and the evolution of hospitality. Help us restore our 18th century refrigerator and be a part of cool history.
Visit the Ice Well Restoration Page for more information.