When Republican Sen. John Ensign resigned this spring a step ahead of the ethics police, few commentators noted the Arlington connection. Admittedly a bank shot, it nonetheless brings out an intriguing slice of local history.
The maritally troubled Ensign was a receiver of spiritual counseling at the famous C Street Townhouse downtown. This veritable dorm for lawmakers in the news for the wrong reasons (recall South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford) is owned by the Fellowship Foundation, which for decades has run the nonpartisan National Prayer Breakfast.
Lo, that group’s headquarters is a mysterious mansion overlooking the Potomac alongside Fort C.F. Smith, off Spout Run in the Woodmont neighborhood of Arlington.
The white colonnaded manse known as “The Cedars” is marked as private property (though I recently wangled permission to stroll the grounds). Led by Pastor Doug Coe, the foundation’s denizens avoid limelight, as goings-on there are colorful.
Hillary Clinton in her memoir wrote of an uplifting lunch in the mansion as a new first lady in 1993; singer Michael Jackson borrowed its rooms soon after the 9/11 attacks; conscience-troubled Republican strategist Lee Atwater and disgraced United Way chairman William Aramony took refuge on its bucolic grounds; so did Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his Anita Hill ordeal.
The home’s interior was described by investigative author Jeff Sharlet “as a room appointed with statues of bald eagles and photos” of Presidents Carter and Nixon. Oddly, a New Yorker article last year called the property “a Revolutionary War-era mansion.” My Arlington histories tell it differently.
Long known as the Doubleday Mansion, the home, according to Eleanor Lee Templeman’s Arlington Heritage, was named for Col. William Doubleday. He and his wife built the bulk of the modern house after moving there in 1898, adding to a structure probably from the mid-19th century. Naming the house “The Cedars” for the surrounding trees, this couple used it to entertain Fort Myer officers and other VIPs.
In 1916, the Doubledays sold their home to Harry Wardman, builder of the hotel that became the Sheraton-Park. In 1919 he sold the house to railroad builder Richard Harlow, who renamed it Hockley for his Maryland ancestral home. Harlow’s daughter Caroline in 1923 moved with her husband, an admiral who would die at the end of World War II, leaving the home to daughter Ann Wilkinson.
The 1930s and ‘40s brought celebrities to the mansion. It was leased to the sister of airline pioneer Billy Mitchell, its digs enjoyed by men in President Franklin Roosevelt’s braintrust. In 1946 Trans-World Airlines took over on a 10-year lease. TWA president Jack Frye remodeled the interior before leasing it to Howard Hughes. In 1948, Pan-American Airways founder G. Grant Mason Jr., moved in with a wife and six kids. They renamed it Peakleigh, a combination of their two mothers’ names.
When the foundation purchased the home in 1978, it restored the name “The Cedars,” according to Nan and Ross Netherton’s Arlington County in Virginia: A Pictorial History.
Before the political sex scandals broke in 2009, the only peep most Arlingtonians heard about the Cedars came when the county board in 2004 responded to complaints from nearby homeowners about the foundation’s use of dormitories for its programs for disadvantaged youth. Because the seven-acre property is zoned as a worship and teaching center, the board deemed such use proper.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org