From where I rest upon the stylobate of stout Doric columns at Lincoln’s memorial, I look over Memorial Bridge and up the acropolis of Arlington Cemetery to Robert E. Lee’s house, here to scan the history of these United States in entire. Considering the theme of The Beautiful Home’s November edition, the “Greek Revival”, should mention that Arlington House, now pinnacle of Arlington National Cemetery, is our nation’s first Greek Revival home, a house once named “Olympus on the Potomack”. And it is to this Olympus on the Potomack that I draw our attention.
Where to begin? Let us begin with George Washington, Father of the Nation, whose adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, had a house, this house, Arlington House, built on “Mount Washington”, 1802.* Custis chose as his architect George Hadfield whose sister, Maria Cosway, a first-rate painter, became famous for her interviews with Thomas Jefferson. Hadfield, a capable architect who you know for his work at the United States Capitol Building, created this temple home, Arlington House, a house for an American man more muscular than are the houses for Greek gods.
Arlington House is composed in a colossal Doric Order of 8 entasis rich, 23-foot-tall columns that stand two stories and span 60 feet. The central temple is flanked by supporting wings with arched Palladian windows. Firm, the bold façade confronts the all of Washington, DC, seeming to answer the United States Capitol Building and to command the plain that lies below its mountain height. The house speaks the domestic not at all, it is a master that will not be challenged. The house offers little strength in depth, instead pushing its force to the front.
You will notice: The muscular columns are not of stone but of hydraulic cement stuccoed then polychromed in the sandstone finish employed at Mount Vernon, a finish that approximates stone at a fraction of stone’s cost. In addition to architect Hadfield, tradesmen, slaves, indentured servants, and perhaps tenant farmers, contributed skills in craft to the creation of Arlington House. Materials for the great house are mostly native to the area of the estate. And here at Arlington House, Custis, alike his stepfather at Mount Vernon, alike Jefferson at Monticello, in Enlightenment fashion experimented with the potentialities of architecture, agriculture, and animal husbandry that he might contribute to the wealth and fame of his country.
The North Wing of Arlington House served as the family residence; the South Wing served as public rooms and contained “Washington’s Treasures”, family heirlooms, many of which can now be found at Mount Vernon. The impressive Middle House (of the massive portico) was added in 1818, and the arched Loggias were added 1818—1820. The house had two kitchens, one for summer, one for winter, and there were outbuildings for slave and trades, and extensive gardens in the English Picturesque style, among which a rose garden maintained by the Custis daughters, one of whom, Mary Anna, would wed Lieutenant Robert E. Lee in the parlor of Arlington House, 30 June 1831.**
For half a century, 55 years, George Washington Parke Custis improved his estate, contributed to his nation’s fortunes, became a benevolent contributor to humanitarian projects, and when in 1857 Custis died, the estate passed to Mary Anna. Robert E. Lee, husband to Mary Anna, became executor of Custis’ will, responsible to the estate, and the Lieutenant Colonel took a three-year leave from Army duties to put the estate into physical, financial, and managerial order. Among the many provisions of Custis’ will to which Lee was responsible, the emancipation of slaves within five years of Custis’ death. By 1860 the emancipation provision was mostly accomplished, and by 1862 Robert E. Lee had emancipated 60-some persons.
Meantime, Robert E. Lee, who opposed the Confederate States, who denounced secession as a betrayal of the Founding Fathers, and who called secession “nothing but a revolution”, was offered the position of Major General in defense of the nation’s Capital. Robert E. Lee declined, saying to his family, “I suppose you will all think I have done very wrong.”
20 April 1861, General Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army and was soon appointed to command the Confederate forces of Virginia. Many friends and family thought Lee had in fact done something “very wrong”, never speaking to him again, and a few would not allow Lee’s name to be uttered in their presence. 24 May 1861, the United States Army seized Arlington Estate.
In 1864, third year of The War to End Slavery, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, former subordinate to Lee, ordered that Union soldiers were to be buried around the rose garden of Arlington House. Soon, tens of thousands would be buried at the estate, some up to the stylobate steps of the columns of the front door of Arlington House.
Following the War, Robert E’s brother, Smith Lee, visited the house and asked that the burials be removed. Resolved, Meigs increased burials, moving the body of his son, 1st Lieutenant John Rodgers Meigs, who died in the skirmish at Smith Run Gap, to the cemetery of Arlington. For the next 15 years General Meigs continued to transform Arlington from the pride of Washington to the shame of Lee, to a National Memorial and final resting place of those who died to end slavery. In 1882, following a long dispute, the United States Supreme Court returned the Arlington estate to the Lee family. General Lee’s son then sold the estate to the government at fair market value.
Today, Arlington National Cemetery contains the graves of over 300,000 veterans who served in every American war and conflict from the War of Independence to the War in Afghanistan.
Arlington House, which from the broad stylobate of the Lincoln Memorial seems an echo of a Greek temple and a call to higher things, is again open after years of necessary renovations and expedient political updates. At today’s Arlington House you will experience the grandeur of our first home of the Greek Revival, you will find the typical Woke flagellations, a poignant reminder of national heroism, and history suitable to Greek tragedy.
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* Later the estate would be renamed, “Arlington”, after the Custis’ family ancestral home on the Maryland shore.
** Among Mary Anna’s disappointed suitors, Sam Houston, future President of Texas, United States Senator, and Governor of Texas.
*** Note: Soon after the Confederate States of America was formed, Mary Anna Lee wrote to her daughter, “With a sad and heavy heart, my dear child, I write, for the prospects before are sad indeed. And as I think both parties are in the wrong in this fratricidal war there is nothing comforting even in the hope that God may prosper the right, for I see no right in this matter. We can only pray that in His mercy He will spare us.”
**** Richard Henry Lee, first President of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, is buried at Burnt House Field. George Washington is buried at his estate, Mount Vernon. George Washington Parke Custis & Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis are buried in what is now Section 13 of Arlington Cemetery. Robert E. Lee is entombed at Lee Chapel, Washington & Lee University; Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee is interred with Robert as are their seven children, and Robert E. Lee’s father, Light-Horse Harry Lee, hero of the War of Independence.
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