Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


When you alight at Reagan National Airport, you’re likely in a travel-fixated hurry.

So it might not dawn on you to slow down and stroll to the historic Abingdon Plantation. The airport authority and the National Park Service have created an easy and well-marked walk there from the Metro stop through the parking garage.

You should take a contemplative break and visit one of our county’s history gems.

Abington has been regarded as the oldest house in Arlington, built before 1741 by Gerard Alexander of the Scottish-bred landowning family who are the city’s namesakes. High on hills overlooking the Potomac and Old Town Alexandria, this prime property in the area called Gravelly Point would become the birthplace of George Washington’s step-granddaughter Eleanor Parke “Nelly” Custis. (In 1941, a “Nelly Custis Airmen’s Lounge was built near the airport’s radar station.)

Abingdon under the Custises was also said to be the site of original planting of weeping willows in the United States.

Because the impressive Georgian home was destroyed by fire in 1930, what you see today are red brick remains sketching the old home’s outline. But you can envision it from benches surrounding tended plants and informative signage.

According to the exhibits, encyclopedias and Eleanor Lee Templeman’s Arlington history, the Alexanders’ original house was nearly 40 years old when it was purchased in 1778 by Martha Washington’s son John Parke “Jacky” Custis (GW warned that he overpaid for the 1,100- acre tract). After Jacky died of camp fever, his widow married the general’s business associate Dr. David Stuart, who helped plan the nation’s capital. Gen. Washington himself stayed there.

The Custis who spent less time at Abingdon was Nelly’s brother George Washington Parke Custis, the builder of Arlington House who was raised at Mount Vernon. By the time he inherited thousands of acres in 1802, Abington had returned to the Alexanders.

The home was eventually sold to the Hunter family. Gen. Alexander Hunter held a post in the Alexandria Customhouse and had money to renovate Abingdon. He was tight enough with President Andrew Jackson to host him there. (Other guests included presidents Tyler and Polk.)

During the Civil War, Abingdon was confiscated because its owners joined the Confederacy. It was occupied by a Union regiment from New Jersey. In 1900, ownership fell to the Washington Brick Co., and in 1924, to the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad.

Following the 1930 fire, architects examined Abingdon to consider a restoration. They settled for a plaque by the Association for Preservation of Virginia’s Antiquities. Historically accurate improvements were made by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

In 1940, Abingdon was acquired for National Airport. When planning for its expansion in the late 1980s, there was talk of paving it over for a parking garage. Gov. Doug Wilder and legislators blocked the idea, and a subsequent dig unearthed artifacts now on display in Terminal A.

Former resident Alexander Hunter II in 1904 described the old Abingdon thusly: “I doubt whether in the whole Southland there had existed a finer country seat; the house was built solidly, as if to defy time itself, with its beautiful trees, fine orchards, its terraced lawns, graveled walks leading to the river a quarter of a mile away; the splendid barns, the stables with fine horses.”

Today’s site offers a placid respite from the airport’s holiday bustle.

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Ben’s Chili Bowl—the Arlington branch of the famous downtown eatery and civil rights spot—has removed the Bill Cosby photos and tribute from its postered walls.

As the world knows, the longtime comedian and African-American dad role model is in a heap of trouble because dozens of women have come forward to accuse him of years-old sexual improprieties. Beginning at the downtown Ben’s, Cosby has long been named in a hospitality list of those who eat free at Ben’s (a more recent addition is Barack Obama).

When I poked my head in this month at the sweet-smelling emporium in upper Rosslyn, the cashiers cheerfully assured me that that they took the Coz’s image down in November. Whether the free eats deal still holds, apparently, has yet to be tested.

CORRECTION: The red bricks seen at Abingdon are, in fact, reconstructed bricks sketching the old home’s outline.