Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

pic19634

Arlington boasts its own medieval city tower. I admire its bluestone cylindrical form each time I’m a guest at the Knights of Columbus mansion on Little Falls Road, where, under various auspices, I’ve combined a chance for fellowship with a peek through a window into local history.

Next time you drive by, take note that the colonnaded home built on land that since the Civil War has been Reserve Hill was created in 1904 by German-American inventor George Saegmuller (1847-1934). He could afford what then was 240 acres of farmland because of his success designing optical lenses for the U.S. Naval Observatory and the company that became Bausch and Lomb. He would later apply treasure and know-how to building an Arlington school and financing the country’s first courthouse.

Saegmuller married into the family of the property’s original owners, the Vandenbergs, and for two decades occupied a fine southern-porched home. (Fun fact: it was outfitted with the county’s first private telephone.) But in 1892, the house burned down. So the inventor decided on a 22-room stone successor modeled after buildings from his boyhood memories of Nuremberg.

All this you learn from basic Arlington history books. But there’s juicier stuff in Saegmuller’s autobiography, which, I just discovered, his descendents have posted on a website calledwww.burnsorama.com. Browse through and you see that Saegmuller considered the farm a “millstone” around his neck. He looked forward to the time when, “owing to the Washington area’s rapid growth, the farm has become very valuable and it will not be long before it will be laid out into building lots.” Little did he know.

Saegmuller’s dreamhouse stayed in the family until his son put it up for sale in 1951, to the delight of the Arlington Knights of Columbus, who had outgrown their HQ on Washington Blvd. For this tale I came across another fresh source. The deal was facilitated by lawyer and Knights leader Vince Tramonte. Newsletters shown me by the Tramonte family show that their father got the price down to $86,000 and financed it in part via a minstrel show. He put out a membership appeal “for sincere and hard workers to appear, ready for work, on Saturday morning, bright and early, to help move the furniture and equipment in from the barn and elsewhere; clean up the place, install the bar, and redirect water lines etc.”

Such joyful volunteering is what I, a non-Catholic, encounter at the home of the Knights. I was first a guest in the mid-1960s as a player on the Knights Little League team. I’ve since been there for a high school reunion, birthday parties, a Better Sports Club’s banquet, and monthly bar-room gatherings of still-developing middle-aged dads.

Over the decades, this warm but spooky house has spawned Halloween ghost stories and rumors of long-ago foul play on the premises. But my only complaint about its owner-a fraternal lodge fully committed to aiding the needy — is that Little League alumni don’t get free beer.

When I stop to admire the tower that gives our suburban landscape some fllavor of Europe in days of old, the spell is broken only by the sight of a window-unit air conditioner. And the fact that guards atop its heights would peer down, not on attacking barbarians, but on the Knights of Columbus swimming pool.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]