Saturday, May 25, 2013

Arlington House

Washington DC from JFK's grave site

On Friday of our trip, we did a bus tour of Washington. If you are looking into Washington bus tours, be sure the one you choose allows you to get off at any stop, stay as long as you want, then board the next bus by, while others only allow you a certain amount of time at each stop. Choosing a tour that let us board any of their buses gave us the freedom to choose where we wanted to get off and how long we wanted to stay, and ensured that Daddy wouldn't be rushed. It was also the only tour company in Washington with permission to do tours inside Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1778, John Parke Custis, the son of Martha Washington by her first husband Daniel Custis, purchased the heights on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. Twelve years later, Congress passed the Residence Act, which would create a national capitol along the Potomac River, leaving the site to the discretion of Custis' stepfather, George Washington. Washington chose a ten-square-mile diamond encompassing the cities of Georgetown, Maryland, Alexandria, Virginia, and the Custis tract of land. The land south of the Potomac was returned to Virginia in 1846, leaving the current extent of the District of Columbia on the north side of the Potomac.

When John Parke Custis died in 1781 after contracting "camp fever" at Yorktown, George and Martha Washington took his two youngest children, George Washington Parke ("Parke") and Eleanor ("Nelly") to raise. Upon reaching his majority, Parke inherited the Arlington tract among other estates, and began constructing Arlington House. The house was designed to be a memorial to George Washington and a showcase for Parke's collection of Mount Vernon relics. It was the Washington Memorial before the Washington Memorial.

Arlington House

Everything about Arlington House was designed to impress. Built atop the highest point on the heights,the Greek Revival house lords over Washington. The fa├žade of is 140 feet wide. The portico features eight massive Doric columns, each 23 feet tall and five feet in diameter.

The flag flies at half staff over Arlington National Cemetery as seen through the massive columns on the portico of Arlington House.
Jackie (right) and John F. Kennedy are buried off-center just below Arlington House, the eternal flame burning above the markers.
Robert F. Kennedy's grave is directly below Arlington House.
View of Washington from the plaza at JFK's grave.
Quotations from Kennedy's speeches are written on the panels making up the wall.

Parke Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh, but had only one surviving daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who married Robert Edward Lee in Arlington House in 1831.

Mary Lee and the children were frequent residents at Arlington during the following thirty years while Robert's career in the US Army Corps of Engineers and later the US Cavalry took him through the Mexican War and to many scattered posts. Upon Custis' death in 1857, Mary Lee was given a life interest in Arlington, which was to pass to her oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee.

Map of Arlington Plantation. Click on photo for larger view.
The grave of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the architect who designed the city of Washington, sits right at the edge of the Arlington House front yard before the steep drop-off to Robert Kennedy's grave.

The absolute very edge.
Can you imagine raising seven kids with a front yard like this?

Parke Custis had never been an energetic farmer or efficient administrator, and his death left his estate in debt and tangled in a complicated will. Grandsons William Henry Fitzhugh ("Rooney") Lee and Robert E. Lee, Jr. were granted plantations on the Pamunkey River in Virginia, while the four granddaughters, Mary, Agnes, Annie, and Mildred Lee, were to receive $10,000 cash legacies to be paid from the income of the three estates and sale of smaller properties. After the debts and legacies were paid, the Custis slaves were to be freed, but no later than five years after Parke Custis' death.

As executor of the estate, Lee had to take a two year leave of absence from the army to settle the estate, reorganize the properties into profitable farms, and repair and remodel Arlington House, including installing central heat and a water closet. While he was on leave, his proximity to Washington made him available to lead the troops detached to quell the John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. In the fall of 1862, in addition to his responsibilities as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia in the aftermath of the battle of Antietam, Lee completed the paperwork to free the remainder of the Custis slaves by the five-year deadline set by Custis' will even though many of them were behind Union lines and effectively already free.

Parlor. Robert E. Lee and Mary Custis were married here.

Parke Custis loved cats, and could often be found sitting on the edge of his seat so as not to disturb them.
Many Custis and Lee cats were buried in the flower garden.

Dining room

Copies of the Washington & Custis family portraits line the hall.
The originals were donated by Lee descendants to Washington & Lee University
and are on display in the Lee Museum in the basement of Lee Chapel.


When we were there, the National Park Service (which administers Arlington House while the Army manages Arlington National Cemetery) was preparing to begin renovations on the house and much of the furniture had been packed up for temporary removal.



Packed up furnishings stored in the dressing room adjacent to the girls' room.
Stairs to attic.
Although he had been offered command of the Union Army by President Lincoln, Lee could not lead an invasion of Virginia. The night of April 19/20, 1861, he could be heard pacing in his upstairs bedroom. Early that morning he wrote out his resignation from the US Army.
Robert & Mary's bedroom.

The boys' room.

Daughter Mary's small bedroom.

View of the flag pole from Mary's front center room.

Agnes, Annie, and Mildred's room.

Back hall.

Back hall.

The Lees purchased the red parlor set in in 1850's when Lee was Superintendent of West Point.

This is the way my mind works:
I've often pondered if any historical forensic investigation was ever done
on this sofa to locate and analyze the cat hair on it.

Painting, playwriting, music, and oratory were among Parke Custis' creative endeavors.
None of them brought him much success.
Considering himself the heir to the Washington tradition, Custis frequently painted
martial scenes featuring George Washington.

South slave quarters
Summer kitchen in north slave quarters
Decades as one of the US Army's premier military engineers made Lee keenly aware of Arlington Heights' domination of the US capital. Knowing the US Army could not afford to not control the position, he directed his family to leave the premises. The house and lands were occupied by the Union Army soon after.
The high ground of Arlington Heights dominates Washington DC. The Lincoln Memorial is on the left edge, Washington Memorial straight ahead, and the Capitol midway between the Washington Memorial and the right edge.

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