Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The long-anticipated expansion of grave space at Arlington National Cemetery is proceeding apace. Our county’s transportation officials last month updated the impact on our streets at a symposium for the Columbia Pike Partnership.

By chance, the construction is beginning as I received word of a little-known effort a century earlier to expand grounds to inter the nation’s fallen war heroes.

The cemetery’s “southern expansion” is being planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration using land from the old Navy Annex. In a deal approved by the county board in January 2021, Arlington reluctantly sold the Army five acres. In return, engineers planned a realignment of traffic patterns at Columbia Pike east of S. Oak St. to Washington Blvd., along with the S. Joyce St. intersection with the Pike, plus a new section of S. Nash St.

The project will add a multi-use trail, pedestrian and bicycle facilities, and a new tunnel between the cemetery and a maintenance compound. The county gets Columbia Pike improvements that, planning documents say, “will help transform it into south Arlington’s `Main Street’ and improve travel for those walking, biking, riding transit and driving in this gateway.” This section of the Pike will become “a four-lane roadway with a sidewalk…improved landscaping, enhanced lighting and undergrounding of utilities.”

One lesson made clear: The U.S. Army and the needs of the nation’s veterans constitute a higher federal priority than the needs of our suburban residents.

Flash back to Arlington Cemetery during World War I. Its superintendent from 1918-1941 was Col. Robert Dye, a Spanish-American War veteran who lived at Arlington House before his own quarters were built. Oddly, Dye, who would go on to be a prominent developer in Arlington and Fairfax, joined with other wealthy investors 400 miles away in Huntington, W.Va., to create a new, civilian cemetery in our hometown.

On Oct. 17, 1917, Dye and partners in the Alexandria Park Association filed incorporation papers for what became Columbia Gardens Cemetery on Arlington Blvd.

The purchase was planned in part to handle overflow from Arlington Cemetery, nearly four miles away, noted Orrin Kronheim, writing on Columbia Gardens’ centennial in Northern Virginia Magazine in 2017. That Dye would simultaneously run Arlington Cemetery while investing in new plots seemed strange to modern-day Arlingtonian Bill Brew, a retired Senate staffer who spent happy childhood hours at Columbia Gardens. Investing in development “while in uniform—that couldn’t happen today,” he told me.

Columbia Gardens, long run by the Thomas family, is the resting place of historic personages: car dealer Bob Peck, Sen. Robert Byrd, guitarist Roy Buchanan, and a host of prominent locals with names like Ball, Marcy, Mackay and Lyon.

Retired superintendent Ned Thomas Jr. confirmed the story his great-grandfather (a co-founder) relayed: “Someone in the War Department knew World War I was coming and that Arlington cemetery was basically full,” he told me. So the partners thought a new cemetery in Arlington would make a lot of money. “But the Army ended up annexing land from Fort Myer,” Thomas said, “and the rest is history.”

Perhaps. Attorney George Dodge, author of a book on Arlington Cemetery, told me that low internment figures around World War I “would not seem to warrant consideration of alternative locations for burial.”
That exhaustion of cemetery space would happen in our lifetimes.

Last month Arlington lost Alan Levine, longtime owner of Mario’s Pizza who was my childhood neighbor.

Alan sold the iconic late-night Wilson Blvd. joint in 2012 for millions so he could go into the electric bicycle business (his Hybrid Pedals’ shop opened nearby). But his timing proved too early, as that new mode of personal transport is just now taking off.

My entrepreneurial pal was streetwise, but he battled private demons that battered him. Just this December we went back for a slice with pepperoni at Mario’s. He was disappointed the new owner had removed the long-displayed 1970s news clips of himself and his mother manning the counter.