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Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
U.S. National Memorial
Arlington House National Park Service.jpg
Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial is located in Washington, D.C.
Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
Location in Washington, D.C.
Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial is located in Virginia
Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
Location in Virginia
Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial is located in the United States
Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
Location in the United States
Location Arlington, Virginia, United States
Area 28.08 acres (11.36 ha)
Built 1803–18
Architect George Hadfield
Architectural style Greek Revival
Visitation 576,816 (2011)
Website Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
NRHP reference No. 66000040
Quick facts for kids
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966
Boundary increase March 17, 2014

Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, formerly named the Custis-Lee Mansion, is a Greek revival style mansion located in Arlington, Virginia, United States that was once the home of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee. It overlooks the Potomac River and the National Mall in Washington, D.C. During the American Civil War, the grounds of the mansion were selected as the site of Arlington National Cemetery, in part to ensure that Lee would never again be able to return to his home. The United States has since designated the mansion as a National Memorial. Although the United States Department of the Army controls Arlington National Cemetery, the National Park Service, a component of the United States Department of the Interior, administers Arlington House.

Construction and early history

Arlington House pre-1861
Arlington House from a pre-1861 sketch, published in 1875

The mansion was built on the orders of George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington and only grandson of Martha Custis Washington. Custis became a prominent resident of an area that was then known as Alexandria County, at the time a part of the District of Columbia.

Arlington House was built at a high point on a 1,100-acre (445 ha) estate that Custis's father, John Parke Custis, had purchased in 1778 and named "Mount Washington" ("Jacky" Custis died in 1781 at Yorktown after the British surrender). The younger Custis decided to build his home on the property in 1802 following the death of Martha Washington and three years after the death of George Washington. After acquiring the property, Custis renamed it "Arlington" after the Custis family's homestead on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Almost immediately, Custis began constructing Arlington House on his land. Hiring George Hadfield as architect, he constructed a mansion exhibiting the first example of Greek Revival architecture in America. Custis intended the mansion to serve as a living memorial to George Washington and a place for his collection of George Washington artifacts. Its design included elements similar to those of George Washington's house, Mount Vernon.

Construction began in 1803, eleven years after L'Enfant's Plan for the future "Federal City" (later called "Washington City", then Washington D.C.) had designated an area directly across the Potomac River to be the site of the "President's House" (later called the "Executive Mansion", now the White House) and the "Congress House" (now the United States Capitol). Custis located the building on a prominent hill overlooking the Georgetown-Alexandria Turnpike (at the approximate location of the present Eisenhower Drive in Arlington National Cemetery), the Potomac River and the growing Washington City on the opposite side of the river. The mansion was built using materials on site, though the building was interrupted by the War of 1812 (and material shortages after the British burned the American capital city). The Custis mansion's exterior was completed in 1818.

The north and south wings were completed in 1804. The large center section and the portico, presenting an imposing front 140 ft (43 m) long, were finished 13 years later. The house has two kitchens, a summer and a winter. The most prominent features of the house are the 8 massive columns of the portico, each 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter.

Guests at the house included such notable people as Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, who visited in 1824 (see: Visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to the United States). At Arlington, Custis experimented with new methods of animal husbandry and other agriculture. The property also included Arlington Spring, a picnic ground on the banks of the Potomac that Custis originally built for private use but later opened to the public, eventually operating it as a commercial enterprise.

Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh. Their only child to survive to adulthood was Mary Anna Randolph Custis. Robert E. Lee, whose mother was a cousin of Mrs. Custis, frequently visited Arlington and knew Mary Anna as they grew up. Two years after graduating from West Point, Lieutenant Lee married Mary Anna Custis at Arlington on June 30, 1831. For 30 years Arlington House was home to the Lees. They spent much of their married life traveling between United States Army duty stations and Arlington, where six of their seven children were born. They shared this home with Mary's parents. After their deaths, Mary's parents were buried not far from the house on land that is now part of Arlington National Cemetery.

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Map of Custis Mansion and surrounding gardens in 1864

The Custises extensively developed the Arlington estate. Much of the steep slope to the east of the house became a cultivated English landscape park, while a large flower garden with an arbor was constructed and planted south of the house. To the west of Arlington House, tall grass and low native plants led down a slope into a natural area of close-growing trees the Custises called "the Grove." About 60 feet (18 m) to the west of the flower garden, "the Grove" contained tall elm and oak trees which formed a canopy. An informal flower garden was planted beneath the trees and maintained by the Custis daughters. It is not clear when "the Grove" began to be developed, but it was under way by at least 1853.

Upon George Washington Parke Custis's death in 1857, he left the Arlington estate to Mary Custis Lee for her lifetime and thence to the Lees' eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. The estate needed much repair and reorganization, and Robert E. Lee, as executor of Custis's will, took a three-year leave of absence from the Army to begin the necessary agricultural and financial improvements.

Civil War

Officers of 8th New York State Militia, Arlington, Va., June, 1861
Officers of the 8th New York State Militia at Arlington House, June 1861

In April 1861, Virginia seceded from the United States. Robert E. Lee resigned his commission in the United States Army on April 20, 1861, and joined the Confederate States Army. With Arlington House on high ground overlooking the capital, the government of the United States knew it must occupy the mansion or be left in an untenable military position. Although unwilling to leave Arlington House, Mary Lee believed her estate would soon be occupied by federal soldiers and left to stay with relatives on May 14, having been warned by her young cousin William Orton Williams, then serving as aide to General Winfield Scott. Union Army troops seized and occupied Arlington without opposition on May 24.

In June 1862, the 37th United States Congress enacted legislation that imposed a property tax on all land in "insurrectionary" areas of the United States. The 1863 amendments to the statute required these taxes to be paid in person. But Mary Lee, afflicted with severe rheumatoid arthritis and behind Confederate lines, could not pay the tax in person. The Arlington estate was seized for nonpayment of taxes. It was auctioned off on January 11, 1864, and the U.S. government won the property for $26,800 ($512,346 today).

During the war, Union Army troops cut down many of the trees on the Arlington estate, especially those to the north and east of Arlington House in and near Fort Whipple (north of the house) and Arlington Springs (near the Potomac River). However, a number of large trees remained, particularly those in a forested area (now known as Arlington Woods) west of the house.

East front of Arlington Mansion (General Lee's home), with Union soldiers on the lawn, 06-28-1864 - NARA - 533118
East front of Arlington House with Union Army Soldiers on lawn (1864)

By early 1864, the military cemeteries of Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Virginia, were rapidly filling with war dead. Quartermaster General of the United States Army Montgomery C. Meigs proposed using 200 acres (81 ha) of the Arlington estate as a cemetery. United States Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton approved the establishment of a military cemetery on June 15, 1864, creating Arlington National Cemetery. Meigs believed that since Lee had committed treason in deciding to fight against the Union, denying Lee use of the mansion after the war was a rough form of justice. Meigs decided that a large number of burials should occur close to Arlington House to render it unlivable. Officers were to be buried next to the main flower garden south of the house, and the first burial occurred here on May 17. Meigs ordered that additional burials commence immediately on the grounds of Arlington House in mid-June. When Union officers bivouacked in the mansion complained and had the burials temporarily stopped, Meigs countermanded their orders and had another 44 dead officers buried along the southern and eastern sides of the main flower garden within a month.

In September 1866, the remains of 2,111 Union and Confederate soldiers who died at the First Battle of Bull Run, Second Battle of Bull Run, and along the Rappahannock River were buried on the former site of "the Grove", southeast of the mansion, beneath the Civil War Unknowns Monument.

Post-Civil War

Robert E. Lee made no attempt to visit or restore his title to Arlington before his death in 1870. Mary Lee died in 1873, having visited the house only one more time, a few months before her death. Too upset at its condition, she refused to enter and left after just a few moments.

In April 1874, Robert E. Lee's eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, filed suit against the United States government in a Virginia circuit court to regain his property. Custis Lee was a major general in the Civil War and was captured by Union forces at the Battle of Sailor's Creek on April 6, 1865 (see David Dunnels White). A jury found in favor of Custis Lee, leading to extensive appeals by both parties. In 1882, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Lee in United States v. Lee, 106 U. S. 196. The court, by a 5–4 majority, found that the estate had been "illegally confiscated" in 1864 and ordered it returned. But Lee was less interested in obtaining the estate than he was in a cash compensation for its value. After several months of difficult negotiations, Lee and the federal government settled on a sale price of $150,000 ($4,711,071 in 2022 dollars). Congress enacted legislation funding the purchase on March 3, 1883; Lee signed over the title on March 31; and the title transfer was recorded on May 14, 1883.

Detroit Photographic Company (0837)
East side of Arlington House, circa 1900, from a photochrom postcard

In 1920, the Virginia General Assembly changed the name of Alexandria County to Arlington County to end ongoing confusion between Alexandria County and the independent city of Alexandria. The name Arlington was chosen to reflect the presence of the Arlington estate.

On March 4, 1925, the 68th United States Congress enacted Public Resolution 74, which authorized the restoration of the Lee Mansion in the Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. The War Department then began to restore Arlington House, and the Department of the Army continues to manage over half of the original plantation's 1,100 acres (450 ha), as Arlington National Cemetery. However, for several years after Congress enacted the authorizing legislation, the War Department, which was responsible for managing the house and grounds, largely ignored the legislation. Contradicting the authorizing legislation, the Department, largely at the insistence of Charles Moore, the director of the United States Commission of Fine Arts, furnished and interpreted the Mansion to “the first half of the republic.” This decision was based, in part, on the popularity of the Colonial Revival movement which was still popular in 1925. The Mansion was restored to the period of George Washington Parke Custis, and no furniture manufactured after 1830 was accepted. This approach negated Lee's role and presence at Arlington.

Quarto de Robert E. Lee em Arlington House
Restored second-floor chamber shared by Lee and his wife, with replica pattern 1858 U. S. Army (colonel of cavalry) uniform across the bed (2005)
Potting Shed Museum - Arlington House - Arlington National Cemetery - 2012-05-19
Potting shed near Arlington House converted to museum (2012)

In 1955, the 84th United States Congress enacted Public Law 84-107, a joint resolution that designated the manor as the "Custis-Lee Mansion" as a permanent memorial to Robert E. Lee. The resolution directed the United States Secretary of the Interior to erect on the premises a memorial plaque and to correct governmental records to bring them into compliance with the designation, "thus ensuring that the correct interpretation of its history would be applied". Gradually the house was furnished and interpreted to the period of Robert E. Lee as specified in the original legislation.

The National Park Service received jurisdiction over the building and some 28 acres (11 ha) of adjacent gardens (distinguished from the cemetery) beginning June 10, 1933.

In 1972, the 92nd United States Congress enacted Public Law 92-333, an Act that amended Public Law 84-107 to designate the manor as "Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial".

Gray family

One of the lesser known histories about Arlington House concerns the Gray family, who helped to preserve the legacy of George Washington Parke Custis as well as the Lee family. Selina Norris Gray, the daughter of Leonard and Sally Norris, was a second-generation Arlington slave. In 1831, Selina married Thornton Gray, a fellow Arlington slave, and eventually had eight children who grew up at Arlington. With the onset of the Civil War, the Lee family had to evacuate their home before the Union troops came and occupied the property. Even though Selina was a personal maid to Mrs. Lee, she and her family were left behind; however, before leaving, Mrs. Lee left the house keys to Selina and the responsibility to protect the treasures of the home. Several of these treasures included cherished family heirlooms that had once belonged to Mrs. Lee's great-grandmother, Martha Custis Washington, and President George Washington.

Within months of Union Army General Irvin McDowell occupying the home in 1861, Selina realized that several precious heirlooms were missing due to soldiers looting the property. When she discovered that some of the Washington relics had also disappeared, she promptly provided a list of the missing objects to General McDowell and convinced him that the significance of the collection required his involvement. He first secured the attic and basement areas to prevent further theft, then had the remaining Lee heirlooms shipped to the Patent Office in Washington, D.C for safekeeping. While Selina is credited with saving the heirlooms and treasures of Arlington House, her children later on are credited with helping to restore the home as well as provide accurate details about the layout of the home, personal stories of the Lee family, and help preservationists in the early twentieth century.

During major restorative efforts to Arlington House from 1929 to 1930, the Gray family made another important contribution to the history of Arlington County and the nation. Four of Selina and Thornton's daughters provided crucial details about the house and its furnishings, and their input proved vital to the authenticity of the project. In 2014, the National Park Service acquired a rare photograph of Selina.

Recent history

Arlington National Cemetery expansion

Looking NW at Arlington Woods - Section 29 - Arlington National Cemetery - 2013-01-18
A portion of Arlington Woods on Humphreys Drive. (2013)

In 1995, officials of the United States Department of the Interior and the United States Department of the Army signed an agreement to transfer from Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, to the Army a part of Arlington Woods, which was located in Section 29 of the NPS at Arlington National Cemetery between Arlington House and Fort Myer. The property transfer, which involved 12 acres (4.9 ha) of NPS land, was intended to enable the Cemetery to increase its space for burials.

Back of Arlington House, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington Virginia, Memorial Day 2017
Back of Arlington House, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington Virginia, Memorial Day 2017

Environmentalists expressed concerns that the agreement would result in the partial destruction of the 24 acres (9.7 ha) remnant of an historically important stand of native trees. Nevertheless, Congress enacted legislation in September 1996 authorizing the transfer.

On June 5, 2013, after reviewing 100 public comments that it had received on a draft environmental assessment (EA) for the Cemetery expansion project, the United States Army Corps of Engineers released a final EA and a signed Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the project. The final EA stated that, of the 905 trees to be removed, 771 trees were healthy native trees that had diameters between 6 and 41 inches. The project would remove approximately 211 trees from a less than 2.63 acres (1.06 ha) area containing a portion of a 145-year-old forest that stood within the property boundaries of a historic district that a National Register of Historic Places nomination form for Arlington House had described in 1966. About 491 trees would be removed from an area of trees that was approximately 105 years old. At a public hearing on July 11, 2013, the National Capital Planning Commission approved the site and building plans for the project.

Studies, damages and restorations

Arlington House from SE corner
East side of Arlington House in 2012

From 2003 to 2007, the National Park Service conducted an archeological excavation of two outbuildings that once held Arlington House's slave quarters. In 2009, the Park Service published reports that described the history of the slave quarters and the findings of the excavations, as well as proposals for the restoration of the quarters.

Arlington House - E facade of North Slave Quarters - 2011
East façade of north slave quarters during restoration (2011).

From 2007 through 2013, Arlington House underwent its first renovation since 1925. During that period, the National Park Services placed the House's furnishings on display at the Friendship Hill National Historic Site near Point Marion, Pennsylvania. The Park Service held a rededication ceremony after it had completed the renovation and returned the furnishings to the House.

Arlington House suffered significant damage in the 2011 Virginia earthquake, requiring the closure of the back halls and upper floor pending an architectural assessment. On July 17, 2014, philanthropist David Rubenstein donated $12.5 million to the National Park Foundation (the arm of the National Park Service which raises funds through private contributions) to rehabilitate Arlington House, its outbuildings, and grounds. The 30-month project is intended to restore the mansion, buildings, and grounds to the way they looked in 1860. The project will repair the earthquake-damaged foundation, and add new interior lighting and a modern climate-control system. National Park Service officials said they are likely to close Arlington House and the slave quarters for several months in 2016, during which most of the work will be done.


Old Administration Building - Arlington National Cemetery - 2011
Old Administration Building, Arlington National Cemetery (2011)

In 1919, a replica was built for the short-lived Lanier University in Atlanta, designed by architect A. Ten Eyck Brown. It is still standing at 1140 University Drive NE, and houses the Ben H. Zimmerman Religious School and the Canterbury School. Arlington Hall, a two-thirds scale replica of Arlington House, was built in 1939 in Robert E. Lee Park in Dallas, Texas.

The façade of the Old Administration Building in Arlington National Cemetery resembles that of Arlington House. The building is 500 feet (150 m) west of Arlington House.

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