Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Whenever I drive past Arlington Hall, I’m reminded that if it did not exist, neither would I.

It was there, at the intersection of Arlington Boulevard and George Mason Drive, that my parents met during World War II.

Today the 100-acre complex is a fenced-off home to the Army National Guard Readiness Center and the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center. But this prime location has a more intriguing history, encompassing debutantes and spies of both local and global import.

Arlington Hall began as the county’s sole private school, built in 1927 as a junior college for women. Its handsome yellow-brick colonial structure with six columns housed a high school, classrooms, a gym and indoor and outdoor equestrian arenas for 200 students. Instruction for females of the smart set included music, art, drama, home economics, secretarial skills and physical education, according to Nan and Ross Netherton’s pictorial history of Arlington.

But its horses were the main attraction, according to Smithsonian American History Museum Director John Gray, whose mother studied there in the mid-1930s. “We grew up with great photographs of her on the fiercest horses, jumping in the ring, and a few pictures of the students, dressed to the nines, for their dinners,” he told me. “Mother continued to ride with the riding instructor from Arlington Hall on the circuit.”

Though the Great Depression forced the school into bankruptcy, it survived under nonprofit trusteeship until 1942. That’s when the federal government took over and set up the Army Signal Corps’ Signals Intelligence Service, tasked with breaking the Japanese code. Renamed Arlington Hall Station, the site hosted many young intel officers and linguists who’d been summoned to Washington for the war effort.

Among them was a Yale history major newly commissioned as an Army lieutenant (my father) and a Newcomb (Tulane University) language major (my mother).

The project was so secret, my dad wrote in a letter my sister recently unearthed, that when he asked recruiters to describe the “actual work, they couldn’t tell us.” Mom described the difficulty of codebreaking on camera in the 2007 WETA-produced documentary, “Homefront: World War II in Washington,” in which she declared crash-course learning of Japanese “a tall order.”

Both my future parents used their time at Arlington Hall to meet people from unfamiliar backgrounds and to enjoy night life with eligible singles. Just a couple of years ago, I tracked down their first apartment, walking distance at Fillmore Gardens. I carried a black-and-white snapshot of the couple from 1944 and invited a befuddled current resident to gawk at the photo of my folks taken half-a century earlier on his front stoop.

When the war ended, the site continued as a national security hub—the drama of a Soviet spy named Bill Weisband at Arlington Hall was not exposed until the 1990s. It served as headquarters to the National Security Agency as well as Army and Air Force security organizations, and later for parts of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Today the beautiful Arlington Hall main building—on the National Registry of Historic Places—is run by the State Department for its Foreign Service Institute. It offers 600 courses, in 70 languages, to some 100,000 enrollees a year from more than 40 agencies.

For security reasons, my request for a tour was denied. But I still contentedly drive by.