Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

County history activists, with little fanfare, have been busy breathing new life into Fort Ethan Allen, the Civil War-era protector of Chain Bridge from invading rebels.

The results, which the public will see this November, combine fresh archaeology with modern museum exhibition techniques in a well-tended natural setting. And like many Arlington projects, the painstaking process on the grounds of the Madison Community Center has ruffled feathers.

In the Arlington Way, we all get a say.

The fort on the grounds of my old elementary school never hosted any combat, but it was one of 68 ringing Washington. Some 1,000 troops were stationed at the site of a signal tower, and they hosted President Lincoln there in 1862.

Historic preservation staff have advanced a conservation project to reinterpret the fort—now mostly just berms–with outdoor displays and signage, replica cannon, a scale model and a soldiers memorial. A thorough dig in 2006 uncovered period artifacts and surfaced new facts that allow an authoritative layout. The loving care also extended to removal of dangerous dead trees and new landscaping using native plants to shield neighboring homes from the fort’s displays and visitors.

Since the county board approved a $485,100 budget in 2010, there have been several community meetings and a blizzard of e-mail. I attended a meeting April 2 and heard design consultant Katherine Lenard present half-finalized photos and draft panels. Some sparks flew.

Her talk pleased many with its plan to move the memorial location farther in from Old Glebe Road in deference to the privacy issues raised by homeowners across the street.

And a parks official from Fort C.F. Smith, a mile down the Potomac, promised that his staff would maintain the new plantings, within the same budget. County Historic Preservation Inspector Marlene Terreros-Oronao earnestly assured all that the county is consulting the citizenry.

But some raw feelings were aired. Neighbors on Military Road and Randolph Court worry the exhibit will increase traffic on the Old Glebe commuter route and do not consider the civic association to have represented their interests before the county.

Judah Best, a close-by neighbor and trial lawyer, told me that memories of an earlier fight over a dog park on the site “reverberated in our consciousness.” The recent success in persuading the county to relocate the memorial came from an informal group whose windows gaze directly onto the fort. “What has us scratching our heads is the nature of the civic association in protecting the interests of the neighborhood,” Best said.

Emily Sopensky said “the lack of communication and interaction is frustrating – especially for a small, relatively wealthy county. One part of the county doesn’t talk to the other,” she said.

Bruce Shuttleworth, president of the Old Glebe Civic Association, sent an e-mail to members summarizing progress. “As an avid museum-goer and history major, I was impressed,” he wrote. The county has been “very forthcoming, transparent and eager to finalize the best plan possible that takes into account the limited budget, best historical interpretation, safety, functionality and desires of the neighborhood.” He predicted “no notable increase” in non-neighborhood traffic. But he cautioned that the association has no veto power over the taxpayer-funded project.

The next station along the Arlington Way comes June 25, when neighbors will gather for a look at the completed plan. Is that consultation enough?