Our Man in Arlington

August 28, 2018 7:40 PM0 comments

clark-fcnpCurrently, you can’t visit Arlington’s namesake attraction (statutorily called Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, and long known to those with a southern bent as the Lee Mansion).

Tours are paused because the National Park Service in June began renovating the site of the beige-columned historic home overlooking the river and Arlington National Cemetery.

That’s a (temporary) loss. Arlington House is the most visited historic house museum in the park system (650,000 folks annually).

Three months in, the redo is still on schedule for reopening in fall 2019, I’m told by Aaron LaRocca, NPS’s acting regional chief of partnerships, community assistance, youth and volunteers at the National Capital Region office.

Recall that American history-lover philanthropist David Rubenstein in 2014 gave $12.3 million to upgrade the fading home and environs built by George Washington Park Custis (1781-1857).

After years of planning, crews swung into action in June to fence off the mansion for the makeover.

“The quarters for the enslaved people of Arlington House will be restored to better represent and tell their stories,” LaRocca said. “While ranger staff continues to research all aspects of the site history, a lot of the new interpretive elements were informed by the Historians Round Table, which elicited scholars’ advice on how to present, more completely, the experience of those who were enslaved at Arlington House,” he said. “The NPS is committed to sharing our nation’s history inclusively and holistically.”

I attended those roundtables in 2015 and met descendants of the Syphax and Gray families, who were central to the enslaved community.

Arlington House is officially a monument to Lee, but it bears more of the personality of Custis. Known as “Wash,” GWPC was raised at Mount Vernon, where his grandmother Martha Washington doted on his every word.

His step-grandfather George Washington, however, bemoaned his poor study habits—he dropped out of Princeton and St. John’s at Annapolis. Still, at age 21, Wash inherited much of the vast estate left by Martha at her death in 1802, which included 200 slaves.

Before marrying Mary Lee Fitzhugh in 1804, he began building Arlington House on a choice hill near the new capital city. For five decades Custis managed crops, built area infrastructure, wrote plays and painted scenes of Revolutionary War battles.

He was an eccentric de facto aristocrat, and you’ll see signs of it when the house reopens.

Recent scholarship has confirmed that Custis fathered at least one child with an enslaved woman housekeeper, the baby raised on the Arlington plantation by the Syphax family.  Custis’s attitude toward his slaves—in his will he left them to Lee, though he had promised them freedom—was complex.

For the curious who come during the closure, a temporary visitor center and museum is inside the Women in Military Service for America Memorial near the cemetery entrance. You can talk with rangers, read displays and go online to see detailed displays of the rooms and objects of the Washington and Lee families.

But come back next year. “As visitors move between the mansion and the new museum and bookstore,” LaRocca said, “they will pass along accessible paths that stretch through the restored grounds, including heirloom gardens.”

You will still get to glimpse elite American family life in the early 19th century. But the presentations will be suited to the 21st.

  ***

I share many traits with my high school mate Bob Witeck. But most formative is that we both were born in the early 1950s at George Washington University Hospital.

The big difference is that Bob, a public relations executive in Cherrydale, still has the invoice sent to his mother, Evelyn Witeck. For services rendered beginning Monday morning, Dec. 17, 1951, GW billed her for $137.95, for six days’ stay.

Bob is proud that the obstetrician, Oscar Dodek Sr., became part of a dynasty of ob-gyns whose name still graces a GW medical school chair.

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