carlyle house cauldron tea and tour

Happy Almost Halloween! 

‘Tis the season to practice your cackles, dust up your brooms, and sip strange brews.

Is he hiding a biscuit in his vest?

This past Sunday, Len and I headed out to the historic Carlyle House in Old Town Alexandria to attend a Cauldron Tea. I’m always happy to steep myself in the fun of a seasonal tea and this one came with the chance to tour the beautifully restored 18th century Palladian-style home of one of Alexandria’s founders, John Carlyle, a wealthy merchant who apparently knew how to invest his shillings and have a really good time.

We arrived a little early, so we strolled around the lovely 3/4 acre garden, which showcases plant materials available to Carlyle during the time of his residency. We were greeted by the chitter chatter of hundreds of birds, no doubt exchanging Sunday pleasantries and engaging in mini-debates (we are a swing state after all). I’d been to Old Town countless times, but never knew this sweet little haven was here. Perfect spot for a tête-à-tête!

* * * * *

♠ ♠ ♠ Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble ♠ ♠ ♠

The tea was held on the terrace, where Count and Mrs. Dracula filled teapots when they weren’t filing their fangs. The epitome of social politeness, they complimented us on our clean necks.

The tables were set with a happy hodge podge of antique china mix-n-match pieces, a collector’s delight (it’s always fun to check your cups and plates for the name of the pattern and place of manufacture).


A black-winged Lucifer, who sounded just like Carson Kressley, brought us our cranberry apple tea and treats. We nibbled and sipped leisurely and attentively, checking our menu for all the clever names:


Vampire Vittles
Curry Chicken salad sandwich
Dracula Fingers
Ham on a biscuit in the shape of a “finger”
Phantom Pumpkin
Pumpkin Bread with orange cream cheese
Devil’s Eye
Deviled Eggs with Olives
Scary Scones
Cranberry or Blueberry Scones
Warlock Surprise
Pumpkin Cheesecake
Tombstone Treats
Howling Moon
White Brownie Dessert
Broom Feast
Cantaloupe & Grape on Skewer
Creepy Pumpkin
Pumpkin Spice Tea Cake
Cauldron Brew
Cranberry-Apple Tea




Lucifer also brought us some warm cornbread and more cranberry scones, and later, host Stacey Hawkins of Calling Card Events came by with a cauldron full of chocolate eyeballs. Devilishly delish!



I liked the Pumpkin Bread with Orange Cream Cheese and Pumpkin Cheesecake the best. They didn’t give us the finger, er, a true Dracula Finger (not ham as stated on the menu), and I didn’t see a White Brownie Dessert on our tray (we were a last minute reservation so that could be why). But we did get a ham and cheese roll-up.

Our finger sandwich was filled with Curry Chicken instead.

After we sugared up, we were more than ready to check out Mr. Carlyle’s digs (the vamps were starting to look thirsty).

* * * * *


This is the only stone house in Alexandria, quite unique for its time. Carlyle built it for his first wife, Sarah Fairfax, who was from a very influential Virginia family.

It quickly became a hub of social activity; the Carlyles hosted George and Martha Washington, among other movers and shakers, and British General Braddock used it as his headquarters when overseeing plans to escalate the French and Indian War. Braddock stayed here for about 3 weeks, and apparently was a rude houseguest. Carlyle did not appreciate someone who “abused his house and furnishings,” and was “too fond of his passions, women and wine.” Tsk, tsk.

Cellar servants hall
Cellar fireplace

Carlyle had 11 children in all — seven with Sarah (who died giving birth to their 7th child), and four with his second wife Sybil West. Carlyle wanted a big family, but sadly most of his children did not survive early childhood. Nine slaves lived in the house; Carlyle depended on both slave labor and indentured servants to keep all three of his plantations and various business ventures running smoothly.

Dances and celebrations were held in the front entry hall.
Love the checkered canvas floorcloths.
Libations for visiting mourners.
Riverside entrance
Small private parlor.</em.

He owned thousands of acres throughout Virginia, and had all kinds of irons in the fire — a foundry in the Shenandoah Valley, retail businesses in Alexandria, trade operations with England and the West Indies, milling and a forge.

Because Carlyle died in October, the house was staged for a period of mourning — black bunting over the front entrance, the shutters half closed, all the mirrors covered with black cloths, his casket laid out in the big parlor (several of the rooms were too dark to photograph). His funeral will be re-enacted this weekend (a total of 19 people died in the house).

Our guide shows us Carlyle’s casket in the main parlor.


Sarah’s room





Visiting physician’s bedding and particulars.

Though we enjoyed the tour and our knowledgeable guide, I was disappointed we didn’t get to see the dining room. I’m sure Mr. Carlyle would have wanted me to see it, even take my place at his table to feast on ham, oysters, and other niceties. 🙂

Still, it was a great way to spend an autumn Sunday afternoon — sweets for the tummy and juicy history for the mind with attendant spirits setting the mood.

Carlyle House as it appeared in 1909.


Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

41 thoughts on “carlyle house cauldron tea and tour

  1. What a wonderful post as usual! I am always so sad I am not with you on the wonderful jaunts you take, but you always do your best to make sure we iss out on very little, and make us feel as if we had been with you, sort of! :–)


    1. It was the perfect day to nibble on goodies on the terrace — after living in VA for 30 years, it was high time we visited Carlyle House. Of course it was food that finally lured me there . . .


  2. It’s a different, higher society spook house, right? Very clever of them to host this, & the food looks so good, Jama, along with the beautiful day! He must have been very wealthy, & sad to hear, like other stories, that his poor wife died in childbirth. So many women did. Thanks for telling about this house. Fun to see.


    1. He did seem especially unlucky having so many kids die so young. Poor wife! But he certainly had the business knack and owned a lot of slaves.


  3. Oh my gosh, that looks fun, and what great pics you took. The ONLY stone house in Alexandria? That’s kind of remarkable, isn’t it?

    The Fall colors now. So lovely.


    1. I was surprised to hear that it’s the only stone house there. Carlyle was originally from Scotland, where stone is a very common building material, so perhaps that’s why he opted for it.


  4. It looks like a beautiful house. The scary thing in an un-Halloween way is that being a rude houseguest was considered more of a moral outrage than owning slaves. I’m glad they included all parts of the story in the tour.


    1. So right, Julie! Just an entirely different way of thinking of what is morally acceptable and what isn’t. What’s impossible for us to fathom now was ordinary business of the day back then.

      The house had fallen into terrible disrepair — wonderful that the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority acquired the property in the early 70’s and restored it.


  5. Well done for the pair of you to take advantage of these last, shiny gold autumn days with such a tea and tour. The lovely house reminds me of British squire houses (only with far better weather) and the men in capes CRACKED ME UP.


    1. Yes, I love visiting these historic homes because it *does* feel like I’m back in the UK for a bit. Didn’t get a pic of Lucifer, dressed all in black with feathery black wings. One of those “men in capes” is a woman :). Their dentists are very proud of them, I imagine.


    1. I’m looking for a good pumpkin recipe even as we speak! The pumpkin cheesecake, especially, is something I’d like to make.


  6. I just noticed that you visited a place in Alexandria. I am going to be in DC over Veterans Day with my husband. Do you live around there? I am probably busy the whole time but it would be neat to be near someone I know online and whose recipies I love!


    1. I remember our previous conversation where we discussed the possibility of your visiting Gadsby’s Tavern in Old Town. I don’t live really close to Alexandria/DC, but out farther west in N. Virginia.


  7. How very posh, Jama. Tea at such a fine fine place – I would have ordered Devil’s Eye and Dracula’s Fingers and probably tombstone treats for dessert. Lovelovelove all the photos! 🙂


    1. Oh, I can see you at this tea with a plate full of Devil’s Eyes and Dracula Fingers, and doing a fine dramatic reading of “The Raven.” 🙂


  8. What a fantastic day and thanks so much for making me feel as if I were there! I love the beautiful mix-and-match china and the fun of the menu! Plus the grounds are beautiful too. Oh, and the inside of the house? Wow! Now I’m craving a local seasonal feast or treat.


  9. Nice house and spread. We don’t do Halloween hardly at all in NZ and I never cease to be amazed at the creative ways that others celebrate it. Have a good week.


    1. I didn’t realize how big a deal Halloween is with some adults until I moved to the mainland from Hawai’i. They might be having more fun than the kids! But — everyone likes chocolate candy :).


  10. Awesome, I wish I could have been there! And I love the picture with the “rainbow trees”… Aka the ones with the green trees in front of the ones colouring. 😉


  11. What a BEAUTIFUL day! Thank you so much for sharing your experience and all those wonderful photos with us.

    I want a piece of that pumpkin bread with orange cream right now!


Comments are closed.