2024-07-22 4:05 PM

Our Man in Arlington

“Arlington House is Closed,” read the National Park Service sign for the past three years. No longer.

On June 8, I was treated to a press preview of the newly reopened landmark atop Arlington National Cemetery. The exterior and interiors of the mansion built from 1802-1818 for George Washington Parke Custis to honor George Washington are now spectacularly freshened.

And a panoply of new exhibits broaden what for decades was a dated interpretation of slavery.

A tasteful sign notes that the “rehabilitation” — delayed by the pandemic — was made possible by the $12.35 million gift from history-loving philanthropist David Rubinstein.

Physically, the mansion has been restored to look as it did in 1861 with an incredible “level of detail” demonstrated by artisans who mounted scaffolding and hand-painted the beige “faux marble” decorative masonry, I was told by Charles Cuvelier, the NPS superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Planners also made a “180 degree switch in the tour orientation.” Visitors now start in the rear, move through the rooms and exit in front through a new glass door to behold the eight-columned portico and the Washington skyline. Not to mention modernization of HVAC, electric and water systems, he noted.

Everything, including flooring, fireplaces and the crowded walls of the interior rooms (which I recall previously as dingy) have been “spruced up a touch,” Cuvelier added. The famous gardens have been re-manicured, and archaeologists uncovered four intriguing 19th-century bottles from a storage pit for the enslaved.

But the biggest change is the presentation giving equal play to Custises, Lees and the African Americans “who were part of everyday life” he said. Current plans don’t include docents in 19th- century costume because of a “risk of romanticizing the antebellum period.” The modernized Arlington House offers sound recordings of heritage music and recitations as well as interactive touch screens that pose questions for visitors to personalize.

Those interested in Custis can see his amateurish but well-detailed Revolutionary War battlefield paintings, the center Hallway packed with (reproductions) of his cherished ancestral portraits, and the ground-floor bedroom where Custis and his wife Molly died four years apart in the 1850s.

Lee fans can see the desk and papers in his office (a copy of the Baltimore Sun on a table), with display text dramatizing his “consequential decision” to fight for the South. There’s Union Gen. Winfield’s Scott’s warning that “You have made the greatest mistake of your life.” The lion’s share of the enhanced museum is devoted to Lee, with a lock of his hair, some mane from his horse, his Colt revolver and a nightgown.

The restored quarters once home to enslaved house servants (their individuality now better documented) reveal the space restrictions (the Gray family of 10 in one 20 x 20 room), with period kitchenware, and a bedroom shared by cook George Clark and valet-gardener Ephraim Derricks.

Powerful and perhaps provocative is the video of living descendants of the Syphax and Parks enslaved families (including Arlington’s own Craig Custis Syphax), who testify to the need for the new rebalancing of the narrative. The Syphax family belief — based on good circumstantial evidence — that their enslaved ancestor Maria was fathered by Custis merits a family tree that traces her direct link to Martha Washington.

As one panel puts it, Arlington House, NPS’s most visited site, presents “a complex legacy.”


Ever seen an electric guitar with changeable parts? The “Phoenix” is being manufactured by the Fern Guitar company run by Clarendon resident Aaron Maisler.

Eighteen pandemic months in development, the wood instrument “offers multiple pickup and control configurations while still keeping the traditional feel of an electric guitar,” he announced. “Modules can be swapped in seconds, without the need to disassemble or change strings.”

Maisler is launching an online kick-starter campaign for the unique concept June 15. Early adapters can buy in for $999 before the price rises to $1,200. The changeable volume and tone controls fit the same fretboard. “Designed in (Upperville) Virginia. Made in the USA.”

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