Sledders find obstacles on popular Alexandria hill

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010

For as long as anyone can remember, in relatively flat Alexandria, as soon as snowflakes begin to fall, there is only one place to go for the perfect sled ride: the steep hills that fan out around the George Washington Masonic Memorial.

The often terrifying roller-coaster slide has been a rite of passage for generations of children, so much that it has been immortalized in drawings by local artists and on postcards.

So this winter, it came as nothing less than an insult to would-be sledders that instead of wide-open lawns, they found hundreds of freshly planted saplings and what they said appeared to be granite gravestones sticking up all over the hills.

"Dear Masonic Temple, thanks for ruining the perfect sledding hills with the tomb stones. Hate, Eric," tweeted one Alexandrian.

"R.I.P. Masonic Temple sledding hill. Enjoyed by generations of local kids, now it's covered with headstones. Ouch!" tweeted another, who attached a photo of what looked like a sloped cemetery.

The complaints started before the first snow fell this season and reached such a crescendo that they hit the offices of the city manager and mayor, both of whom called the masons and demanded an explanation.

The trees and granite markers aren't about the sledding, the masons said, although sledding has never officially been permitted and it routinely costs thousands of dollars to replace flattened shrubbery and grass and eroded soil. Once, after revelers drove their car up the front stairs, the masons had to shell out big bucks to restore expensive stonework.

It's about oxygen, they said. Beauty. And money.

In 2002, the masons began working on a master plan to turn the 36-acre lawn around the memorial into a wooded park. They've planted 360 trees.

"Our ideal is to have a total tree canopy on the grounds to provide oxygen for the city," said George Seghers, executive director of the memorial.

The trees will be pretty, he said, and will keep the steep hills from eroding, cut down on landscape costs and, because they are gifts donated at $500 a pop, bring needed revenue into the memorial's coffers.

The granite markers, which rise six to eight inches off the ground, are designed to memorialize donors, he said.

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