The most peaceful hill in DC

In Memorials on June 10, 2011 at 5:18 am

The NPS came up trumps again this week, this time with a trip to General Robert E Lee’s house in Arlington. This is almost a behind-the-scenes, but not quite…

The Lee house stands as a memorial to Robert E. Lee, Confederate General of the Civil War, and his efforts to better re-unite the warring factions after the end of it. Now, although still open, the house is undergoing major renovations at the moment, so it isn’t looking its best. Still, that’s why HABS were called – Large Format Photography was required of some nifty graffiti. Discovered under several layers of stripped wallpaper and paint, the scribblings especially needed to be recorded before its covered back up again. Great chance to see some secret history!

As you can see, it’s very much a working site. What you cannot see, however, is the acrid smell of paint stripper that made everyone nauseous if you spent more than five minutes in the room. Makes a slow process like setting up and taking all those photographs problematic…

The rest of the house is furnished with NPS information boards depicting the room they are in complete with interior décor and furniture, as really the whole house is empty. There’s not a lot for me to comment on, because it’s a skeleton at the moment, and although it should be great when the restoration is finished, I can’t say the house itself is worth a visit at the moment. There is a slave annexe at the back, with one room of infographics and a model of the Freedman’s Village that followed the emancipation of the Arlington Slaves, which is interesting but tiny, especially considering that the testimony of former slaves were the basis for the whole interpretation of the site when it first became an historic landmark. One room in the annexe is a bookshop, and the other room is closed. I don’t know if anything will be done with it during the building works that are happening with the house, but at the moment there is nothing to suggest there is – yet another example of the servile history of a house being brushed over, unfortunately.

So there isn’t much to see, but come 2012 it should be a lot livelier. Not that there was a shortage of visitors as the Lee house sits atop Arlington Cemetary. Arlington is primarily the resting place of US war veterans dating back as far as the civil war, with funerals still being held daily for soldiers from ongoing conflicts, and so many come to pay their respects to the various memorials here.

It is also the resting place of some famous Americans. Pierre L’Enfant, the man who laid out the plan of Washington DC, is buried just in front of the Lee House, so for all eternity he has this view over his city:

Pretty sweet view, I’d say. William Howard Taft, 27th President of the United States is also buried in the grounds, as are Abe Lincolns children and a few other famous peeps along the way. The most famous of all, however, are probably the Kennedys. JFK, Jackie Onassis and two children, Patrick and an unnamed daughter are buried here, accompanied by an eternal flame.

This site isn’t interpreted beyond a visitor centre at the gate, which is appropriate for a working cemetery. The gravesite of the Kennedys especially has very little of a spiritual or hallowed feel to it, as it is constantly overrun by visiting schoolgroups and tourists, but Arlington as a whole is one of the most peaceful places I have experienced in Washington. It’s worth the visit just for the view from the Lee House.

  1. The inside of the house is completely different to when I was there. It was just laid out as a house then with guides dressed in period costume. Did you see Bobby Kennedy’s grave? It was just a plain wooden cross. We saw the changing of the guard at the grave of the unknown soldier. Worth seeing if you are there. xxxx

  2. I did see Bobby’s grave, yes – but like I said it was hell down there with all the schoolkids. There must be a better way of controlling crowds there.

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