Mount Vernon and George Mason High School
In 1893, establishing an elementary school was one of the first priorities of the residents of the newly-established communities of Del Ray and St. Elmo, which were among the first “trolley suburbs” to be built in Northern Virginia on the outskirts of Washington. The old Washington Alexandria and Mount Vernon electric trolley ran straight down Commonwealth Avenue. The first school in the area opened in 1896, in two rooms in a house at 208 E. Howell Avenue. The teacher was paid $30 a month. Two years later, the school was moved to 204 E. Del Ray.
In 1899, Joseph Suplee and William Garrett purchased five lots on Mount Vernon Avenue for a new school building. The first Mount Vernon School, completed in 1906, was an impressive brick Colonial revival building with an octagonal cupola with a bell and tall, white columns gracing each side of the front entrance. The school opened out onto Mount Vernon Avenue, where the playground now sits. It had a 350-seat auditorium, stage, dressing room, and a facility in the balcony for “stereopticon” shows. At a cost of $30,000, the superintendent at the time said the Mount Vernon school was “probably the most expensive building in the county.” The large school was built with an eye to the future and a commitment to education because at the time, the town’s population hovered around only 200.
The school not only served to educate the community’s children but also as a meeting place. It was here that the community decided to incorporate as the Town of Potomac in 1908, here that the Town Council met in the basement and here where, in 1930, after two years of contentious public debate, the Town of Potomac agreed to be annexed and become part of the City of Alexandria.
In 1925, some local houses still had chicken coops, the sidewalks were two wooden planks and the community’s streets were still paved with cinders from the nearby Potomac Yard railroad switching station — the largest in the nation and one of the area’s biggest employers. Mount Vernon Elementary School got an addition in 1928 and by 1930, 800 students attended the school, where the 15 teachers had an average class size of 53 students.
City officials built George Mason High School just next door to Mount Vernon. At this time, the city defined the “desirable” teacher-student ratio as 45 to 1. In 1935, George Mason High School was closed and the building became an annex to Mount Vernon. In 1953, the school population grew again when the Warwick Village community was built.
The old Mount Vernon building was demolished in 1968. The present-day Mount Vernon that opens onto Commonwealth Avenue was built shortly thereafter. The three-story brick George Mason High School building, after extensive renovation, was incorporated into the new school.