A Shared Heritage:
Urban and Rural Experience on the Banks of the Potomac


The Vernacular Architecture Forum will meet for its 2018 Annual Conference on the banks of the Potomac River. The region preserves distinct culture and resources, which predate the founding of our nation’s capital by more than a century.  Alexandria, Virginia, a vibrant early urban center of domestic, commercial, and industrial resources, lies across the Potomac from Washington and from Southern Maryland, an agricultural landscape that showcases the evolution of three centuries of tobacco culture. This conference will be will be based at the Crowne Plaza Old Town Hotel in Alexandria, which provides notable venues for the major conference gatherings.

The Potomac Conference will focus on the connections and distinctions between the rural landscapes of the Maryland countryside and the urban setting of Alexandria, Virginia, which face each other across the Potomac River. Over the centuries, these two areas have developed on independent courses, all the while maintaining strong links across the river. Agriculture, including the exploitation of enslaved labor, was the basis for life on both shores. While Maryland’s economy relied overwhelmingly on tobacco, Alexandria’s rise was tied to a diversification of crops, pursued by the early planters of northern Virginia. Tours will focus on evolving pre-and post-emancipation heritage, highlighting resources ranging over four centuries. They will also shine a spotlight on the distinct character of life on both sides of the river, while underscoring the architectural, economic, cultural, and religious connections that span it.

Over its 266-year history, the City of Alexandria was a trading center, hometown of George Washington, home to both the largest slave-trading firm in the country and a large free-black community, and, in time, a street-car suburb for U.S. federal workers.  VAF conference attendees will have the opportunity to see and experience three centuries of historic sites, reflecting the rich diversity of this history.

Southern Maryland offers the rural counterpart to Alexandria’s urban experience. The region is home to Maryland’s earliest European settlement, and its built environment illustrates the growth of tobacco agriculture in the 18th century, as well as the crop’s virtual disappearance at by the beginning of the 21st century. The tobacco economy also spawned thriving ports that over time became obsolete as waterways silted up. The African-American journey from bondage to freedom is writ large on this landscape, in slave quarters and the freedmen’s towns that sprang up along the edges of former plantations.  Additionally, Southern Maryland possesses a unique architectural record of both the early Roman Catholic and Quaker experiences.

Conference themes will focus on the connections and distinctions between these two landscapes. Over the centuries, these two areas have developed on independent courses, all the while maintaining strong links across the Potomac River.

The 2018 conference receives generous support from the Maryland Historical Trust Board of Trustees, the City of Alexandria, the University of Maryland Historic Preservation Program, the Historic American Buildings Survey, Preservation Maryland, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

The conference is headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia at the Crowne Plaza Old Town, and for the keynote event we will travel by boat to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Please note two important points: Maryland tours are limited to 100 participants each, so register early; the boat for the keynote event leaves at 5:00pm on Wednesday, so make your travel plans accordingly. 

Questions? Contact Tom Reinhart at vafpotomac@vafweb.org.

We look forward to seeing you on the banks of the Potomac!


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