Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The Arlington Arts Center near Virginia Square has rolled with the pandemic as well as any nonprofit. Though its galleries are shuttered, it set up an outdoor artists’ exhibit, created a new strategic plan to expand the audience for contemporary art and began a search for a new executive director.

The center retains one distinction: Its building, the former Matthew F. Maury Elementary School that closed in 1975, is the last remaining Arlington structure designed by noted Virginia architect Charles Robinson.
One of our commonwealth’s most admired, Robinson (1867 – 1932) worked out of his Richmond firm’s offices to design some 400 education buildings in the early 20th century. Those included many in the state capital and dozens on the campuses of what today are the College of William and Mary, the University of Mary Washington, Washington and Lee University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Radford University, Virginia State College, the University of Richmond, Bridgewater College and James Madison University.

But “Robinson Schools” were at the elementary level, in counties and cities across Virginia. He designed five in Arlington (called Alexandria County until 1920). Besides Maury (which began as the Clarendon School in 1909), they included Fort Myer Heights School (built in 1919 but renamed the Wilson School in 1925).

That latter structure on Wilson Blvd. was demolished in 2017 to make room for the new Heights building, which houses the H-B Woodlawn secondary program. Other Robinson schools that came and went included Cherrydale (1910), Ballston School (1914) and Barcroft (1924, later rebuilt but still thriving). Robinson also designed the now-defunct Fairfax County elementary schools called Forestville, Bailey Crossroads and Franklin Sherman.

Born in Hamilton, Virginia, the son of an architect, Robinson spent his school years in Canada. As a young man he was mentored in architecture by notables in Michigan and Pennsylvania. He set up his own firm in Altoona in 1889 before taking his talents back to Richmond.

Though he was equally prolific at designing sanitariums for public health, Robinson strangely is “relatively unknown today,” as Sally Brown, curator of a 2019 exhibit on the man at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, told Richmond Magazine. “His inventiveness and philosophy of open-air school rooms was important then and now. He seemed to care more about the people and their well-being and the function of the building than many architects today.”

Robinson’s opus that became Arlington’s Wilson School stood out for “its massing, materials (concrete and brick primarily), the alternating brick and window bays along the front facade, the wide frieze band, the decorative cornice with scrolled modillions, and the low-pitched hipped roof,” read the Fort Myer Heights neighborhood’s application for historic designation.

“Robinson had a rare ability to produce a huge amount of work at a consistently high level,” architect Robert Winthrop wrote in Richmond Architecture in 2015. His structures “are always well built, logically planned, efficient and handsome. Robinson seemed to have a knack for creating architecturally impressive buildings for the notoriously stingy state, county and city school boards.”

The Arlington Arts Center treasures its designated landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. “Robinson’s design has withstood the test of time,” said spokeswoman Blair Murphy. “We’ve worked with really talented artists, and it’s wonderful to give them the opportunity to create in an environment with such a striking presence and rich history.”

The historically minded Caruthers family has modernized the controversial sign near their compound on N. Stafford St., across from the Madison Center.

Back in 2016, neighbors were questioning the plaque erected decades earlier referring to the property as a wildlife sanctuary at the “historical site of Civil War Fort Ethan Allen, which commanded all approaches south of Pimmit Run to Chain Bridge during the War of Northern Aggression (1861 – 1865.)”

Steve Caruthers informs me his family agreed late last year to spend $6,000 to remake the plaque for “those who didn’t get the joke.” The new plaque simply calls the conflict “The Civil War.”