A few years ago, I provided funds to rehabilitate Arlington House and did so because I have always seen it — from the time I was first taken there as a child by my parents until now — as the crown on the country’s most sacred ground. I thought the crown should be in far better shape than it had been. (The rehabilitation is now largely completed, including repairs to earthquake damage from 2011.)
When I made the gift, I saw the Greek Revival house as a memorial to George Washington, for it was his step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who built the house as a living memorial to our first president.
Robert E. Lee married Custis’s daughter, Mary Anna, and together they lived there for 30 years, leaving (never to return) when Lee joined the Confederate forces.
To ensure that Lee would never return, Union forces began burying their dead on the lawns of the house, knowing that after the war Lee would not want to live on the site of such a cemetery.
The house has gone through many transformations and name changes. For years it was known as the Custis-Lee Mansion, but in 1972, Congress designated the building as Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial. The National Park Service was given the responsibility to maintain the property.
Unlike memorials erected in the South honoring Lee and other Confederate figures, the Arlington House designation was not intended as a veiled way to praise the Confederacy and what it represented. Rather, establishing Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial was portrayed as a way to honor Lee’s post-Confederacy efforts toward national reconciliation.
That aim may have been well-intended at the time, but that was then. Today, we live in a time when symbols of racial intolerance need to be removed — and the sooner the better.
Arlington House is a historic home; it should not be torn down. Historic sites, as opposed to pseudo-historic monuments, have value in teaching us about the past — the good and the bad. A tour of the restored house can remind visitors of many things: its goal to memorialize George Washington, its habitation by the Lee family and the use of enslaved people to build and support it, including the slave quarters that have been rehabilitated to illustrate this stark reality. Perhaps most important, the house offers a unique view of the nation’s largest and most hallowed military cemetery.
Congress should act quickly to redesignate the building, whether simply as Arlington House, Arlington Cemetery House, Memorial House or any other name that does not offend Americans and helps remind us of the many patriots who have given the last full measure of devotion to their country.
Just as I was honored to be able to fund the house’s rehabilitation, I would be honored — as I am sure many other Americans would — to provide any support needed to help change its designation as soon as possible.