The grand classical portico of Arlington House, former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, looms over Arlington National Cemetery, the Potomac and the memorials along the riverbanks, reminding Washingtonians that their city marks an historical boundary between North and South.
The house offers a taste of history dating back to the first First Family: It was begun in 1802 and finished in 1817 by George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington, who was a widow with children before she married the first president. Custis built the house on a 1,100-acre homestead, 612 acres of which now comprise the cemetery.
Custis's daughter, Mary Anna Custis, married U.S. Army Lt. Robert E. Lee at Arlington in 1831, and shared Arlington House with her parents off and on for 20 years. After the house was willed to Mrs. Lee when her father died in 1857, Robert E. Lee took a two-year leave of absence from the Army to work on the house, which was in a state of disrepair. When Lee decided to fight on the side of the South at the beginning of the Civil War, he left the house in 1861 and never returned. Not long after, the Union army took over the property, using it as headquarters for officers defending Washington. In 1864, a 200-acre portion of the lot was designated as a cemetery for Union soldiers, and thus Arlington Cemetery was founded. The house and other property were turned over to the National Park Service in 1933.
Arlington House's priceless location is apparent as soon as you enter its center hall the skyline view of the nation's capital across the Potomac River is spectacular. The house itself is roomy, even by today's standards, and furnished the way curators believe it looked in 1861. An extravagant Southern lifestyle is evident from the exquisite china, silver and glassware in the family dining room and the five high-ceilinged upstairs bedrooms for the couple's four daughters, three sons, guests and the Lees.
The Custis bedroom was located on the lower level, along with an office, store room, pantry, school and sewing room, guest room and several parlors. Reproductions of the family's art collection hang on walls throughout the house. A few originals painted by George Washington Parke Custis himself remain at the house, though most of the family's collection is now at the Virginia Historical Society and George Washington University.
The house is open for self-guided tours; park guides are available to answer questions.
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What makes it special: Standing under the massive columns of Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, atop a hill in Arlington National Cemetery, visitors can observe American history — from the years leading up to the Civil War onward — in one sweeping view that unfurls for miles.
The story begins on the lawn of the Greek revival-style mansion built in the early 1800s. Long before the grounds became the final resting place for hundreds of thousands of warriors, it was a sprawling 1,100-acre plantation owned by George Washington’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. Arlington House’s prime location, however, nearly proved to be its undoing during the Civil War, when the home’s occupant, Custis’s son-in-law Robert E. Lee, resigned from the U.S. army and evacuated his family to Richmond. Union forces soon took over the valuable real estate. The mansion, which was named for Custis’s ancestral homestead farther south, fell into disrepair.
In addition to getting 360-degree views of the cemetery, visitors can look out across Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Capitol building. To the south, you can see the Pentagon, slightly obscured by trees.
While you’re there: Tour the house, which recently underwent a restoration, and check out the peculiar mural painted by Custis of a lion attacking a tiger. You also can pay respects to Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who planned the District and is buried in the front yard.
If you go: Arlington House is located within Arlington National Cemetery. Parking is available near the visitor center, and the Arlington Cemetery Metro station also is nearby. From the center, it’s about a 10-minute, uphill walk to the house.