Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The oldest school building in Arlington remains the red-brick edifice built in 1891 on current-day South Arlington Ridge Road.

The Hume School was named for Confederate Army veteran, politician and grocery-store whiskey magnate Frank Hume (1843-1906).

Though it hasn’t hosted students since 1956, it boasts a slot on the National Register of Historic Places, and has housed, since 1963, the Arlington Historical Society and its museum.

It is among my holiday hopes that this vintage structure be given the means to continue in host-worthy condition.
The Hume building’s history (including changing exterior colors) was recently enhanced with research by Marymount University History Professor Mark Benbow (the museum’s curator) and the Arlington-based architectural firm John Milner Associates Preservation.

Frank Hume, from his estate in Alexandria known as Warwick, was active as a state delegate and in planning Arlington’s transportation development. In 1891, he sold land to the county for a bargain $250 and donated extra acres so the school could open in 1893. The architect Stanley Simmons (1872-1931) earned at age 19 one of his first commissions, and went on to design dozens of downtown fixtures, including the Fairfax Hotel and the National Metropolitan Bank.
The Hume School boasted two first-floor classrooms, one for grades 1-3 and one for grades 4-6. Because Hume doubled as a community center, the second floor opened up into a meeting hall that could hold 200. Many of the students (whites only) had to walk up a steep hill on a still-extant path that goes down to modern-day Crystal City. Initially the school lacked electricity (power was installed sometime in the 1940s) and relied on coal for heating. (After the school was shuttered, excavators discovered seven tons of unused coal in the basement.)

The school’s first teacher and principal was Julie “Abbie” Dishman (married name Arnold), from King George County, Va. She recruited three teachers and a maintenance man from her office on the second floor (now refitted as a model old-time classroom). She made a ceremonious return in 1968 and donated artifacts including her teacher’s license, a textbook and keys to the building.

Though Hume’s capacity reached as high as 110 students, by the 1950s attendees had shrunk to 60, many of them with learning disabilities, and others had transferred to nearby Oakridge Elementary built in 1950.

Arlington Public Schools closed Hume in 1956, citing the costs of renovating such essentials as fire escapes. It sat empty for five years (birds nested inside), and plans were made for demolition.

But Frank Hume’s deed had required that the land be used for educational purposes. So his granddaughter Margaret Cooke Birge proposed that the county buy it, and it was then given to the historical society (founded in 1956). After a $45,000 renovation to create exhibit space, the museum opened in September 1963 (still open weekend afternoons).
Six decades later, funds are sought for a sorely needed new renovation. “The deterioration of the windows, combined with an outdated HVAC system can have a damaging effect on our artifact collection” of some 4,000 items, notes Annette Benbow. (Disclosure: I serve on the board with her and husband Mark.) There is also a threat of water leakage, a need to upgrade bathrooms and perhaps install an elevator to widen access.

History lovers can do their part by donating at Arlingtonhistoricalsociety.org.

The pandemic continues? One sign is the outdoor bourbon-and-scotch tastings still hosted five nights a week by Ashton Heights Civic Association President Scott Sklar.

I attended the Nov. 24 edition with a dozen other Arlingtonians in front of the renewable energy activist’s mostly solar-powered home. (My hopes for a prize for traveling the furthest distance—from East Falls Church—were dashed by a vacationing Dutchman.)

Sklar serves from quite a stash of mash. His free get-togethers have endured for 18 months as a way of keeping human contact via the relative safety of the suburban outdoors. You must be 21 to attend!