In May 1749, the Royal Governor of Virginia signed a bill to create a new town along the Potomac River on 60 acres of land owned by John Alexander. Fairfax County surveyor John West Jr., assisted by a seventeen-year-old apprentice George Washington, laid out the streets and lots for the new town of Alexandria. The original lots were purchased by many historic notables, including Lawrence and Augustine Washington, John Carlyle, William Ramsey, George Mason, Colonel William Fairfax, and George William Fairfax. At the foot of King Street, the water’s edge was along Water Street, later named what we know today as Lee Street in honor of another famous Alexandria family.
Within a decade after its founding, Alexandria developed into an important seaport. Its economy revolved around exporting the crops of the land (first tobacco, then wheat) and selling the vast diversity of goods that came into the port of great merchant vessels. By 1795, the value to Alexandria’s exports was $948,000 and the port was the seventh largest in the new nation.
In 1785 the Virginia legislature appointed Colonel George Gilpin to resurvey the town and to grade and pave the streets. In regarding the streets, Gilpin cut down the steep bank that existed along Fairfax Street and used the excavated land on which the Wharf building and other warehouses along lower King Street were constructed.
Although specific construction dates are elusive it is believed that the Wharf building was built sometime in the 1790’s. One indication of the building’s age is the fact that the floor joints supporting the second floor were notched into the beams at both ends; this is a construction technique that was widely used before 1800.
One of the first businesses in the new building was the Miller Company, described in history books as “importers and dealers in crockery, china, etc…” The Miller Company installed an elevator, the lift of which can still be seen next to the bar next to the restaurant and the pulley wheels in the attic.
In 1885 the owner was in debt to the State of Virginia and the building was sold at auction for $3,000. The building’s location at that time was described as “No. 27 King Street, 60 feet East of Water Street,” but in 1888 the street address was changed, with Julian T. Burke Jr., an ancestor of the family that owned Burke and Herbert Bank at King and Fairfax Street, to 119 King Street as a feed and grain warehouse.
In March 1997, The Wharf Restaurant was purchased by new owners interested in preserving the character of this 200-year-old building, while providing an exceptional dining experience. of the original columns and beams were preserved, and traces of a Civil War-era fire can be seen in the charred texture of some of the wood. All of the original stone and brick interior was retained, with only sandblasting and sealing.