P.O. Box 5230, Fort Lee VA 23801

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The Restoration of Arlington House

As Carried Out by the

By MAJOR L. M. Leisenring, Q. M. RES.
The Quartermaster Review
March-April 1934

The Office of The Quartermaster General has long been charged with the administration and care of all National Cemeteries. In August, 1933, eleven of these, located adjacent to National Parks, together with all National Monuments in the United States, formerly under the care of the War Department, were turned over to the Bureau of National Parks of the Interior Department. Arlington National Cemetery has remained with the War Department, but the old mansion house with the dependent buildings immediately adjacent to it, standing on the Virginia hills, overlooking the Potomac and the National Capital and surrounded by the cemetery grounds, is now under the Interior Department’s control.

This was one of the most distinguished homes of the early American Republic, originally the center of an estate of 1,100 acres. Its construction was started in 1803 by its owner, George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington, and adopted son of General George Washington. Here the youthful Mr. Custis brought his still more youthful bride, Mary Lee Fitzhugh of Chatharn, and furnished their home with priceless heirlooms from Mount Vernon. Here, in 1831, their only surviving child, Mary Ann Randolph Custis, became the bride of Lieutenant Robert Edward Lee, fresh from graduation honors at West Point, and here in 1861 General Lee made his momentous decision to join with the South in the War between the States.

Many other great names find association here. In 1824 General Lafayette was the guest of the adopted son of his former adored chief. But rich and poor were alike welcome and Mr. Custis maintained a public picnic ground at the onetime famous Custis Spring near the river.

Mrs. Custis died in 1853, Mr. Custis in 1857; their graves lie to the southwest of the mansion in the family burial plot surrounded by an iron fence.

When Mrs. Lee followed her husband south, early in 1861, she took with her as many of her cherished possessions as she could hurriedly gather. Others had been left in the care of nearby friends and still others had been left at Arlington under the-care of trusted slaves.

When the Union Army took possession of the heights of Arlington as a part of the fortifications which were built around the city, General McDowell had the Washington relics left there transferred to the Patent Office for safe keeping, and these were eventually returned to Mrs. Lee’s son, George Washington Custis Lee.

The real property was seized for taxes and bid in for the United States Government for $26,800.00 in 1864. The Courts finally decided the title to be in George Washington Custis Lee, the eldest son of General Lee, the legatee of Mr. Custis, and in 1883, upon payment by the Government of $150,000.00, he finally transferred the title to the United States.

During the Civil War, thousands of dead from the battlefields and hospitals near and in Washington were buried at Arlington. Since then the old mansion house has been the administrative center of the cemetery and has been subject to the changes and alterations incident to such a use. For many years the second floor and the north portion of the main floor, also the old summer kitchen building, were used as quarters for cemetery personnel, the south rooms and the old smokehouse building being used respectively for offices and workshops. The only parts of the building open to visitors were the main hall, the large drawing room and the state dining room, all standing cold and bare with no reminder of the great days and personages associated with them.

The old flower garden to the south of the mansion, with its summer house, box bordered paths and flowerbeds and climbing vines, all surrounded by a white picket fence, much like Mount Vernon, survived long after the war, but finally disappeared. The old vegetable garden to the north was built over with a large greenhouse and potting shed of glass and brick. The fine old stable, across the ravine among the trees to the west, in architectural style and materials, and with classic portico similar to the house, was burned some twenty odd years ago and replaced by an entirely unlike structure. There was little left of Arlington as it once was.

But the Congress, realizing the wealth of sentiment and historic interest surrounding the old place, by an Act approved March 4th, 1925, empowered the Secretary of War to undertake its restoration to its condition prior to the Civil War and to secure, when possible, articles of furniture and equipment which had been in the mansion, or replicas or other pieces suitable to the first half of the Nineteenth Century. A small appropriation for preliminary work was made in March, 1928, followed by additional funds as surveys and the work of research revealed what would be necessary for a true restoration.

The work has been a labor of love, not only by the Officers of the Quartermaster Corps and the architects of the Office of The Quartermaster General who planned it, and the professional who have given their advice, but also by the journeymen and laborers who worked on the job with their hands. Among the officers giving it their particular attention have been the former Quartermasters General, Major Generals B. F. Cheatham and J. L. DeWitt, and the former Chiefs of the Construction Division, Brigadier Generals W. E. Horton and L.H. Bash (now The Quartermaster General). A fortunate circumstance is the continuation in its charge of Lt. Colonel Charles G. Mortimer, Q. M. C., Retired. All of these officers, during the progress of the work, were constant in their interest and in their efforts to make the restoration a complete success.

The furnishing of the house has been greatly aided by generous gifts from patriotic organizations and individuals and it is hoped that public funds and private interest and generosity will permit the continuance of the work; for as added knowledge continues to make new things desirable, it can properly be said that such an undertaking is never completely finished.

The architectural problems of the restoration have been those of the archaeologist and the historian. Structural revelations have been remarkably supplemented by corroborative evidence, by documents and by the recollections of some few who could remember back before the war.

The building is of massive proportions, the central part two stories high, 60 feet wide and 40 feet deep, faced by the Doric portico exten4ing 25 feet in front of this. The north and south wings are each 40 feet long and 25 feet wide and back of these are lower wings for service and for the orangerie, or as the old slaves called it, the “Camelia House.” The total length north and south is 140 feet.

The walls are of brick covered with stucco laid off with the lines of freestone and later painted, as were so many of the early buildings of Washington. The eight columns of the hexastile portico are of brick stuccoed, 23 feet high and 5 feet 3 inches in diameter, about midway between the dimensions and pyoportions of the columns of the Theseuni at Athens and the Temple of Neptune at Paestum, each of which has been named by early writers as the prototype of Arlington.

Generally the design has been attributed to Mr. Custis, hut with due regard for his great versatility and interest in the arts, one sees here the work of the trained architect. Although the most diligent search has not revealed the original drawings, there is no reason to doubt the statement of William Dunlap in his authoritative “Arts of Design in the United States,” published in 1834, when lie says that GEORGE HADFIELD * * * * gave the plan of the public offices, the City Hall, CUSTIS’S MANSION,* * * and other buildings that we know were his. Mr. Howard Major and Mr. Fiske Kimball, in recent books, both give Hadfield the credit for the design of Arlington. Hadfield. the young English architect who came to this country to take the place of the Frenchman, Hallett, in his work on the Capitol building, was a classicist and this house, begun in 1803, can well be considered the first important residence of the Greek Revival in America.

Mr. Custis found himself with a great plan, one that today makes Arlington House a completely adequate closure for the magnificent vista from the Lincoln Memorial out over the new Memorial Bridge. But although tremendously wealthy in lands and slaves, lack of ready cash made its completion slow work. He solved his problem by building the two wings first and living in them while the central portion with its portico was rising between them. The four hips to the roofs of the two wings exist today, under the parts of the roofs extended to the main walls. The north wing has been designed as one large dining room with a central fireplace. The fireplace is blank, the chimney stopping short of the roof, while the wing was built with three small bed and sitting rooms as a sort of honeymoon cottage The south wing had two rooms, the inevitable office and a fine room for entertaining. These continued in such use and Mr. and Mrs. Custis is, after the marriage of their daughter and the advent of the seven Lee children, returned downstairs to their honeymoon quarters and there lived out their days. Mr. Custis in his later years taking possession of the large drawing room across the hall as a studio for his historical paintings in which his adored foster father was always the central figure.

Another departure from the original plan that was made during the first construction was the division of the large room north of the main hall into two smaller rooms by three arches, the center with double doors and the sides with plastered panels under fan lights. These doors were evidently soon removed, for it was under the central one of’ these arches that Miss Custis became the bride of’ Lieutenant Lee.

All ancient changes have been respected but later day alterations have been corrected. These were readily distinguished, for the former were made with the hewn timbers, split laths, hand forged nails and other materials of the period. In the main framework few nails were used all timbers were hewn, each piece numbered (even the outlookers supporting the cornice), and pinned together with wooden pegs. The main roof is supported by immense trusses spanning the full width of sixty feet. The roofs had been covered with shingles but as some years ago these were replaced with slates, the restoration has not gone so far as to change them.

One of the principal restorations on the exterior was the replacing of the balustrades around the roofs of the two wings, which had disappeared.

In the interior the restoration of fireplaces and mantels, old floors, old hardware, chandeliers, hangings, portraits and furniture immediately appear, but back of all these has been a complete rebuilding of crumbling walls and chimneys, rotted framework and unsafe floors. The heating plant has been removed from the main building and for safety placed in a modern out building from which heat is brought to concealed outlets. A concealed automatic fire alarm system protects every room. An obsolete electric wiring system has been removed and a modern system installed, but instead of simulating candles and sperm oil lamps with imitation fixtures, the new system is to baseboard outlets only, for electric cleaning or for flood lights if desired.

The dependent buildings, which played so important a part in the family life of the period, have been given equal care. Their restoration has been a problem of the greatest interest, as they had been greatly changed. The north building housed the summer kitchen, the south building the smoke house and the store room for food supplies. Both housed also quarters for the house and body servants.

The old stable has been practically duplicated by altering the modern stable and adding replicas of the old wings and front portico. It now houses the offices of the cemetery, which by this arrangement are now happily removed from the mansion.

The restoration will not be complete until the gardens have been restored as a proper frame for the fine old buildings. Studies have been made for these and the vegetable garden has been partly restored by the removal of the cemetery green house. With this work completed, Arlington House, surrounded by the honored soldier dead, will adequate picture to the people of today and the future the great men and the great days of the past.