Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpA county archeological dig, I can announce here, has uncovered a cache of nearly 2,000 18th-and 19th-century artifacts at the Dawson Bailey House.

Known to many for its playground, rec center and voting station overlooking Spout Run, the upper Rosslyn structure long known as Dawson Terrace is considered Arlington’s oldest stone residence. (Not its oldest house, as is stated on its out-of-date sign, a status that attaches to the Ball-Sellers place in Glencarlyn.)

The Dawson farmhouse played an intriguing—if not central—role in Arlington history going back to its construction perhaps as a miller’s home sometime between 1767 and 1785, according to maps. Civil War drama unfolded there, when both Abe Lincoln and Robert E. Lee were said to have visited the modest farm and orchard.

Which is why it’s cool that the recent dig—which grew out of a repair and stabilization project—recovered 243 ceramic objects, 1,603 glass objects, 74 metal objects and 13 others.

The hazy story behind the Dawson place (North Taft and 21st streets) has intrigued local researchers ranging from the late author Eleanor Lee Templeman to Arlington Historical Society president Karl VanNewkirk, who shared with me tidbits he assembled for an excellent lecture in 2013.

The most colorful enthusiast was Bruce McCoy, who grew up in Dawson’s shadow in North Highlands and knew the last owner, Bessie Bailey, from whose estate the county bought the property in 1955. In the late 1980s, McCoy, as an archaeology student and later a community college teacher, performed research and led neighborhood walking tours, hoping for a serious dig like the one just completed. (Now retired, he goes by the name Billy Plumb.)

Dawson’s high ground (maps suggest a dwelling there as early as 1696) formed part of the 18th-century transportation routes of the extended family of George Mason, who owned what is now Roosevelt Island. The name came from a Marylander named Thomas Benonie Dawson, who bought and expanded the house in 1859—see his initials carved in one stone. On the property he called “Rio Vista” lived his two slaves, Patrick and Maria.

A neighbor named Robert E. Lee, according to youngest daughter Bessie Dawson (who later married a Bailey), visited the farm to encourage owners to reject secession. Dawson figured in the federal government’s circle of forts that defended Washington—ties are documented to the now-vanished Fort Bennett and to Fort C.F. Smith across Spout Run, which back in the day was connected by a bridge.

When Union troops crossed the Potomac and occupied the property, they burned the barn, slaughtered livestock and confined the Dawson family to house arrest. But later, romance bloomed between troops and the Dawson daughters.

Dawson’s continuing high-profile as an Arlington landmark is clear from an 1875 painting “The Ludlow Patton” by an unknown artist showing it rendered from the Georgetown vantage point.

The recent dig was performed by Commonwealth Heritage Group Inc. in consultation with Arlington’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board.
The objects—most from the mid-to-late 19th century–include nails and a Minie ball projectile. Others are made of stone, mortar, bone or oyster shell. Also unearthed were manufactured glass tumblers, inkwells, stoneware and pearlware, as well as patterned whiteware and gilded porcelain, I was told by Catherine Matthews of the Environmental Services Department.

Photos from the county are coming soon.


The historic Broadview house, set back on a hill at Washington Blvd. and George Mason, is for sale. The former home of Civil War Union Army major–later Arlington farmer–Robert Lacey (1833-1915), whose current stewards are relocating, was accorded historic district status in 2014.

On Sunday, I toured the 1881 elegant Victorian gingerbread home to see the 15-foot ceilings inside its yellow wood siding and blue trim. It has been modernized in key parts—including the Jacuzzi up in the attic tower.

De Raedt realtors are asking just under $1.3 million.