Arlington House National Significance
Sitting high atop the ridgeline of Arlington Heights, overlooking the Potomac River and directly across from the capital of the U.S., Arlington House stands out as one of the most visible sights in Washington D.C. Not only does the house stand guard over Arlington National Cemetery, initially created on the estate’s 1,100 acres, but it also stands as an outstanding, and important, example of early Greek Revival architecture.
Composed of a two-storey central section flanked by two one-storey wings, Arlington House was begun in 1802 as a monument to George Washington. Built by George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington and step-grandson of George Washington, circumstantial evidence indicates that he commissioned George Hadfield, second architect of the U.S. Capitol building and designer of the Washington City Hall, to design Arlington House. According to architectural historian Ralph Hammett, this was only the third representation of Greek revival style in the United States at the time.
George Washington Parke Custis was raised at Mount Vernon. After inheriting the 1,100 acres estate from his father, John Parke Custis, the only surviving son of Martha Washington, G.W.P. Custis built Arlington House between 1802 and 1818, largely to serve as the first memorial to the nation’s first President and as a museum for his own Washington mementos that had come from Mount Vernon. Despite this important link to George Washington, Arlington House has gained greater recognition from its next owner, Robert E. Lee. In fact, the official principal significance of Arlington House, as defined today by Congressional legislation, stems from its association with Robert E. Lee – hence its legislated designation: “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.” Accordingly, Arlington House is also a major Civil War Sesquicentennial site.
Robert E. Lee was related to Custis’ wife and was a frequent visitor to Arlington House from childhood until 1831 when, at Arlington House, he married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis and his wife. For 30 years, Arlington House would be home to Lee, his wife, and their seven children – six of whom were born at Arlington House. Although Lee’s military career kept him away for long periods of time, he returned regularly to Arlington House where he was able to make improvements to the house and bring the estate, which had declined in Custis’ later years, back to prosperity.
With the coming of civil war in 1861, Lee was faced with the difficult decision of supporting the Union or his native state of Virginia. It was in the Lee’s personal office that, on April 20, 1861, Lee wrote his fateful letter resigning his commission from the U.S. Army. On April 22nd, he left Arlington House forever, followed by his wife and family in May. The house was soon occupied by Union Troops. In 1864, responding to a need for space in which to bury Union war dead, General Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster General of the Union Army and a vocal opponent of the Southern rebellion, chose the grounds of Arlington House as the site for Washington’s war cemetery. To ensure that Robert E. Lee never returned, General Meigs ordered that graves be placed outside the front door of Arlington House and personally supervised the burial of 26 Union soldiers along the boundary of Mrs. Lee’s garden.
In an 1882 Supreme Court decision, it was determined that the U.S. Government had illegally confiscated Arlington House from the Lees. In an 1883 signing ceremony, ironically with Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, the government formally purchased the house and estate from George Washington Custis Lee, the Lee’s eldest son. Managed by the Army until 1933, when it was transferred to the National Park Service, Arlington House served mainly as the residence for the Administrator of the National Cemetery. With the revival of interest in General Lee, Congress designated the mansion as a memorial to Lee in 1955 and it was placed on the national Register of Historic Places in 1966.