Arlington House

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Arlington House or the Custis-Lee Mansion in Arlington, Virginia, located directly across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, was the home of Robert E. Lee until it was confiscated by the government and transformed into Arlington National Cemetery because of Lee's role in the American Civil War.

Robert E. Lee once wrote to a cousin that at Arlington House "my affections and attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world." Today this house, overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, D.C., is preserved as a memorial to General Lee, a man who gained respect of Americans in both the North and South.

Arlington House is uniquely associated with the families of Washington, Custis, and Lee for it was built by George Washington Parke Custis. After his father died, young Custis was raised by his grandmother and her second husband, George Washington at Mount Vernon. Custis, a farsighted agricultural pioneer, painter, playwright, and orator, was interested in perpetuating the memory and principles of George Washington. His house, begun in 1802 but not completed until 1817, became a "treasury" of Washington heirlooms. Arlington House, named after the Custis family's homestead on Virginia's Eastern Shore, was built on a 4.45 km² (1,100-acre) estate that Custis' father, John Parke Custis, purchased in 1778. The house was designed by George Hadfield, a young English architect who was for a time in charge of the construction of the Capitol. The north and south wings were completed between 1802 and 1804. The large center section and the portico, presenting an imposing front 43 meters (140 feet) long, were finished 13 years later. Robert E. Lee described the house, situated on a hill high above the Potomac as one "anyone might see with half an eye."

In 1804 Custis had married Mary Lee Fitzhugh. Their only child to survive infancy was Mary Anna Randolph Custis, born in 1808. Young Robert E. Lee, whose mother was a cousin of Mrs. Custis, frequently visited Arlington. Two years after graduating from West Point, Lieutenant Lee married Mary 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 U.S. Army duty stations and Arlington, where six of their seven children were born. They shared this home with Mary's parents, the Custises.

When George Washington Parke Custis died in 1857, he left the Arlington estate to Mrs. Lee for her lifetime and afterwards to the Lees' eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee. The estate needed much repair and reorganization, and Lee, as executor, took a leave of absence from the Army until 1860 to begin the necessary agricultural and financial improvements.

Lee was distressed when news reached him that Virginia had adopted an Ordinance of Secession on April 17, 1861. He had supported preservation of the Union that his father and uncles had helped create and opposed slavery, but he remained loyal to his native state. He was at home at Arlington on April 20, 1861, when he made his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army. Two days later Lee left Arlington for Richmond to accept command of Virginia's military forces with the General Assembly's approval; he never returned to Arlington. About a month later, with Union occupation imminent, Mrs. Lee also left Arlington, managing to send some of the family valuables off to safety. After Arlington became headquarters for the officers who were superintending the nearby defenses of Washington, many of the remaining family possessions were moved to the Patent Office for safekeeping. Some items, however, including a few of the Mount Vernon heirlooms, had already been looted and scattered.

A wartime law required that property owners in areas occupied by Federal troops appear in person to pay their taxes. Unable to comply with this rule. Mrs. Lee saw her estate confiscated in 1864. An 81 hectare (200 acre) section was set aside as a military cemetery, the beginning of today's Arlington National Cemetery. In 1892 George Washington Custis Lee's suit against the Federal Government for the return of his property was successful. By then, hundreds of graves covered the hills of Arlington and he accepted the Government's offer of $150,000 for the property.

Arlington National Cemetery was established by Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, who commanded the garrison at Arlington House, appropriated the grounds June 15, 1864, for use as a military cemetery. His intention was to render the house uninhabitable should the Lee family ever attempt to return. A stone and masonry burial vault in the rose garden, 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and containing the remains of 1,800 Bull Run casualties, was among the first monuments to Union dead erected under Meigs' orders. Meigs himself was later buried within 100 yards of Arlington House with his wife, father and son; the final statement to his original order. For some years the superintendent of the cemetery and the staff used the mansion as offices and living quarters. Beginning in 1925, the War Department began restoring the house, and in 1933 it was transferred to the National Park Service. In 1955 the mansion was designated as a memorial to Robert E. Lee. Over the years some of the original furnishings have been obtained. The hope is to restore the house to its pre- Civil War appearance and to recreate the home that Lee and his family loved so much.


Arlington House was built by slaves on the plantation of handmade brick covered with a very hard cement called “hydraulic cement,” and the surface was scored and painted to look like marble and sandstone, a process referred to as a faux finish. These faux finishes were very popular in the early 19th century, just as they are now. The back or West side of the house was left unfinished with the brick exposed until 1818.

One of the earliest Greek Revival structures, and one of the earliest residences to use the “Colossal Orders,” (the huge columns that span the entire two stories of the house), the Arlington House design was inspired by a specific Greek temple. The plan is attributed to George Hadfield, a young English architect who had earlier worked on the United States Capitol building. Hadfield probably also designed the slave quarters in back of the house. These structures form a small court and harmonize in style with the house.

The huge columned portico was intended by George Washington Parke Custis to be conspicuous from the city. Mr. Custis wanted a fitting memorial to George Washington and a safe place to display his collection of George Washington's memorabilia, which he called his “Washington Treasures.” The facade of the house including both wings is 140 feet. The imposing portico is 60 feet across by 25 feet deep, featuring 8 massive Doric columns, 6 of them on the front. Each column is 23 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter at the bottom, tapering at the top.

The design of the capitals at the top of the columns are called Doric. They are the simplest of the Greek columns. Doric columns were usually fluted. Those at Arlington were not fluted, but smooth, probably because Mr. Custis wanted to save money. The capitals, the entablature and the pediments are made of wood, scored and covered with stucco.

The stairs of the portico are also made of wood. Possibly, sand formed the portico floor at first. It is known that Mr. Custis did not have the octagonal brick tiles made and installed until 1851. Today, visitors walk on the other side of the historic surface as architects flipped the brick tiles over to save them from wear and tear.

The only original locks are on the main front and back doors into the Center Hall, and the lock on the door between the Center Hall and the Back Stair Hall. The latter was stolen in 1865, but returned in the 1920's when restoration began. The only original floors are in the five bedrooms of the second floor.

The North Wing, constructed in 1802, was originally 2 stories with a massive single chimney and had a hip roof. (Mr. Custis planned for this to become one large ballroom some day). Later the North Wing was changed to a gable roof, windows were added and the exterior was decorated to match the South Wing. The South Wing was constructed in 1804 with a temporary wall, probably of wood. Obviously, construction of the largest section of the house, the two-story “Middle House” with its impressive portico, was already planned and accommodations were being made for its addition in 1818. In the meantime, the Custis family lived in the North Wing and entertained guests in the South Wing where they displayed the “Washington Treasures.”

The original roof was of wooden shingles. Lee had the roof of the “Middle House” covered with slate, and he installed gravel roofs on both North and South Wings in the 1850s. Each wing originally had a parapet, which looked like a decorative railing, across the edge of the roof. Lee also removed those during the 1850s.

Two loggias with arches were added to the rear of the house between 1818-20. Probably by 1845, these loggias were enclosed to make the Conservatory and the Outer Hall Pantry. At the same time, what architects called flanker additions, were added to create entrances to the back halls in the main part of the house. The Lees called their conservatory the “Camellia Room.”

The walk-in closets on the landings may have been used as bedchambers when necessary. The servant's stairway continued down into the basement to provide access to the North Wing Basement, but it was removed at some unknown date. It is believed that the main stairs may have also continued to the basement, and were also removed. Before the stairs to the basement from the pantry were constructed, there may have been stairs in the Winter Kitchen to the upper floor of the North Wing.

Remnants of the central heating system installed by Lee in the 1850's are in the basement of the house under the Center Hall. A dairy was located under the South Wing where former slaves stated that milk was stored in a deep, dry well and butter was churned.

The somewhat austere quality of the architecture is relieved by the deft use of the graceful arches throughout the house. There is an exceptionally large arch in the Morning Room in the South Wing.

A water closet was installed in 1837 at the end of the Outer Hall Pantry (enclosed loggia) in the North Wing. Probably, the separate room housing a bath was added at the same time.

There was an octagonal summer house located in the exact center of the flower garden. It was used for the entertainment of guests on summer nights, and some of the Lee daughters could be found there reading books where the weather permitted.


  • Article text adapted from public domain National Park Service websites.[1] (, [2] (

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