- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Virginia vista that Robert E. Lee and his family enjoyed from Arlington House has changed enormously in the last 150 years. That doesn’t mean it is any less spectacular.

Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, stands high on a hill in Arlington National Cemetery. Visitors can see a wide swath of the Potomac River, as well as the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol and the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials from the front porch of the house, which was built in stages between 1802 and 1818.

Arlington House represents many things — old Virginia plantation life, the link between George Washington’s family and Gen. Robert E. Lee’s family, and the formation of the 624-acre Arlington National Cemetery.

The house was originally built by Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, as a monument to President Washington. The 1,100-acre estate featured livestock and crops.

Mr. Custis and his wife, Molly, had one surviving child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who in 1831 married then-Lt. Lee at Arlington House.

The Lees enjoyed life at Arlington House for 30 years, says Joan Cashell, a volunteer docent at the estate. Mrs. Cashell has been donning period costume — including a hoop skirt — and interpreting Arlington House history since the 1970s.

“This was his wife’s family house,” Mrs. Cashell says, “but Robert E. Lee thought of Arlington House as his home. Six of their children were born here.”

The idyllic life at Arlington, of course, changed during the Civil War. After Virginia seceded in April 1861, Gen. Lee left the estate to command Virginia’s military forces, and later, the Army of Northern Virginia. Mrs. Lee, meanwhile had only a few weeks to pack the family’s valuables and send them away to relatives for safekeeping, Mrs. Cashell says.

By May 1861, the estate was occupied by Union soldiers.

“A soldier wrote in a letter, ‘Men are camped on the grounds at Arlington as far as the eye could see,’ ” Mrs. Cashell says. “In the last years of the war, they began to bury their soldiers here. They buried the Union soldiers closest to the house.”

Mrs. Lee was unable to pay the taxes on the estate, and in 1864, the U.S. government confiscated the home, as well as 200 acres for Arlington National Cemetery.

The cemetery grew into one of the most visited sites around the Nation’s Capital. Arlington House was turned over to the U.S. Park Service in 1925 and opened as a memorial to Gen. Lee in 1927.

A visit to Arlington House can be a one-stop shot (go on a clear day to enjoy the view) or as part of a longer tour of Arlington National Cemetery. The house is located vertically in between the John F. Kennedy grave site and the Memorial Amphitheater. Be warned — the best way to get to Arlington House is via the Custis Walk — a stairway path that goes straight uphill. If any visitors are not up for the climb, they can take the Tourmobile buses for a fee.

The park service is currently working on a restoration project for the house, so the period furniture has been moved out. Renovations will be complete by 2010. However, visitors can still walk through the house, and there are pictures in various rooms that show what the furnishing usually look like. Tours are self-guided, but docents and park rangers are available to answer any questions and provide perspective.

Even without the furniture, it is easy to image old Virginia life high on the hill. Mrs. Cashell gives a colorful picture of life in the 1830s.

“The river was wider in those days,” she says. “There were hogs being raised in the swamp near the river. There was a ferry boat that ran to Georgetown. The Lees would bring people over on Sundays.”

When you go:

What: Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial

Where: Arlington National Cemetery

Directions: Take Memorial Bridge to the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Follow signs for cemetery.

Parking: Park in the pay parking lots for Arlington National Cemetery.

Hours: Open daily, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.

Admission: Free


• Arlington House is a historic estate built by George Washington’s descendants in the early 1800s. After Gen. Robert E. Lee married a Washington descendant, Arlington House was the Lee family home for 30 years.

• The house, now a national historic site, gives a good picture of Virginia plantation life, as well as events and people making history during and after the Civil War.

• The view of the Potomac River and the Washington skyline from the house is spectacular.

• The interior of the house is open, but furnishings have been put away as the structure undergoes renovations.

• Tours are self-guided, but docents and rangers are available to answer questions.

• The house is straight up a hill, about a 10-minute walk from the parking lot. Those who are not able to walk can take the Tourmobile for a charge.

Information: Click on www.nps.gov/arho or call 703/235-1530.

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