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Arlington House Revisited

Prominent landmark to undergo renovations as a means to preserve its rich history

Robert E. Lee’s renowned mansion, Arlington House, will be closing its doors in the winter of 2007 in preparation for the first significant renovation of the home since 1925.

"The primary thing missing is a fire suppression system," said Site Manager Kendell Thompson. "A modern fire-detection system and a climate management system."

The entire collection will be moved to a mansion at Friendship Hill in Pennsylvania. The Friendship Hill estate belonged to Albert Gallatin, secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson, and is similar in size and age to Arlington House, complete with a fire suppression system; the only thing lacking is furniture.

Before renovations begin at Arlington House, visitors will have the unique opportunity to take part in open room tours — something that has never before been done — granting them a more thorough appreciation of the house’s architecture. For instance, visitors will be able to stand in the very spot under the archway where Lee married into the family.

Though the mansion will close until mid-summer, the site itself will be open, including the slave quarters and flower garden.

As Thompson explained, "We have a moment … the moment when Lee resigned his commission in 1861." Renovations will consequently be based around this time period.

The Army was originally responsible for maintaining Arlington House, and throughout the 1920s, it was redesigned in the architectural fashion of the time — the colonial Williamsburg style.

The National Park Service undertook possession of the house in the 1930s, and though it has been preserved adequately up until now, experts are concerned about what damage could occur in the future.

"The humidity swings and temperatures are essentially the same as 200 years ago," Thompson said. "And, to some degree, we need to reflect that to the visitors … humidity is the problem, not temperature … the furniture swells and contracts. We’re also going to pull up the floorboards to make repairs, put pipes for fire-suppression in the floor, while maintaining the original plaster."

Additionally, the basement will be opened up to the public for the first time; it is the only place to tell the story of Arlington House’s field slaves. While examining the bricks, Park Service officials discovered a well beneath the floor, and it was concluded that the field slaves would store dairy goods here to keep them cool. Such a discovery inspired the Park Service to restore the well and forego plans to place ducts beneath the floor.

"This is not like any home renovation," said Thompson. "The renovation must be very delicate. We’re dealing with an American treasure."

FOR THE PAST DECADE, Arlington House and its surrounding land had been at the center of a controversy, known as the "Battle for the Woodland," regarding the expansion of burial sites.

In its entirety, Arlington House once encompassed 1,200 acres of land. During the course of the Civil War, the Union army took over the house and began building forts on the land.

With his dead piling up, Gen. Montgomery Meigs of the Union army decided to bury his fallen soldiers in one place — the grounds of Arlington House. Today, Arlington House is at the center of Arlington National Cemetery, with more than 300,000 graves.

Arlington National Cemetery’s Superintendent John Metzler lobbied to convert part of the woods surrounding Arlington House into more burial sites, while historians, such as Sherman Pratt, wanted to preserve them as a complement to the house.

"Most of the big national houses around the country, like Mount Vernon, Monticello … all of these places have been preserved for historical reasons, and have maintained the surrounding land," Pratt explained. "So visitors to the house get some feeling of how it looked when these famous people lived in it."

According to Pratt, conferences were held within the Senate and the House to reach a compromise. As it stands, 12 of the 24 and a half acres were transferred to Metzler for use to expand the cemetery.

These 12 acres will become part of Arlington National Cemetery’s "Millennium Project," which encompasses the old picnic grounds on Ft. Myer, an old warehouse complex adjacent to the grounds, and this buffer zone between Arlington House and the cemetery — what Metzler refers to as the internment zone.

These three pieces of land will be joined together and, according to Metzler, will allow the cemetery to provide burial sites until the year 2060.

"The challenge is we have very little land available for expansion," said Metzler. "With the expansion, we’re not concentrated on one small geographic location anymore … it’ll provide a relief valve for us, as we have four to five funerals each hour."

DESPITE THE WOODLAND CONTROVERSIES and the rehabilitation project it will be facing, Arlington House has certainly stood the test of time, a symbol of the Civil War.

With Arlington House, it’s not a matter of whether these walls could talk — the walls do not tell its story, rather, the floor does.

In April 1861, Lee was offered command of the field army to put down a Southern rebellion — in effect, a promotion. However, above all, Lee was a Virginian. He recognized that if Virginia seceded, the Lee family would go with it.

The promotion became a matter of family versus country. In the evening of that day in April 1861, Lee paced the floor outside his bedroom; his family downstairs could hear the floorboards creaking under his footfalls.

Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, Lee wrote his two-line resignation letter to the Army and left Arlington House.

If all goes as plans, Arlington House will reopen next summer, fully equipped to withstand humidity swings and safeguarded against fire.

The floorboards shall still creak, Civil War graffiti will remain etched into the attic’s beams, and fingers crossed, the Lees’ piano will be successfully restored, tuned to perfection, to be played once again.