Local Commentary

Our Man In Arlington

Perhaps the most under-reported land dispute in Arlington’s history involved what we now know as the Air Force Memorial.

Before it was installed at Mile 1 of Columbia Pike, that soaring metallic tribute was originally slated for near the Marine Corps (Iwo Jima) War Memorial.

The strip of land known as the Nevius Tract has a long history of federal-county push-pull. New details, I’ve learned, are being unearthed by retired tech executive Clayton Depue, who back in the 1990s lived in an adjacent condo. “Only after three years, a quarter-million dollars in legal fees, testimony before Congress and other activities, were we successful at getting the Air Force Memorial relocated,” he said.

The tract was named for a Riggs Bank employee named Avon Nevius. Spotting a future federal interest in land near Rosslyn, he purchased 25 acres of farmland after World War I, according to National Park Service documents.

But the land’s important history goes back farther, as documented by former Arlington Historical Society President Johnathan Thomas. His multi-generation Arlington ancestors in the Birch family owned part of it beginning in 1842 when his great-great-great-great “grandfather, John Birch, bought land in what became Rosslyn from John Mason, son of George,” Thomas told me. He has maps to prove it. Nevius, says the Park Service, bought it with National Capital Planning Commission executive Lt. Col. Sherrill, speculating that the site would be purchased for a nearby memorial to Woodrow Wilson (pondered in 1931).

In 1948 the federal government made its move, buying the tract with plans for a new veterans hospital. Congressional hearings were held in 1952 on how to dispose of the Nevius Tract by then administered by the General Services Administration. The result: the land devolved to the Park Service as part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. In 1953, it became the site of the Marine Corps Memorial and in 1960 the Netherlands Carillon.

Its subsequent choice for an Air Force Memorial gained traction (including a Washington Post endorsement) in 1997. A neighbor in Depue’s condo on N. Meade St., protective of their shared view of downtown monuments, alerted him to the monument plans. The published artist’s conception “looked like an upside-down king’s crown,” he recalled. A Post article mentioned a 20,000 sq. foot underground reference room. “At least three of the Iwo Jima Memorials would fit inside.”

A dozen neighbors began meeting despite “having no knowledge of the process,” recalled Depue. They met with National Park Service official John Parsons, who brought in retired Lt. Gen. Robert D. Springer, president of the Air Force Memorial Foundation, carting a 3D model of the proposed memorial.

In Depue’s telling, Parsons explained how they had followed all rules. Then Springer stood up and “really pissed us off with his arrogance, repeating that they had crossed every T and dotted every I,” Depue said. “We will locate this memorial across the street,” Springer said, and “we have every right to do so.

He could not have said more to “move our small group to complete dedication” to opposing the memorial,” recalled Depue, who plans a book on the effort. Their subsequent lobbying in the interservice “battle of the monuments” was one reason that in 2001 Air Force and Marine leaders announced the switch to the site near Columbia Pike, where the memorial opened in 2006.

After 75 years of tradition, the Christmas trees sold by the Optimist Club of Arlington will no longer be spread out for customers in the parking lot of Wells Fargo Bank at N. Glebe Rd. and Langston Blvd.

The bank’s national offices cited unspecified liability issues as reasons for the change, I’m told by local Optimist President Brian Kellenberger. The local branch manager didn’t return this reporter’s calls.

So the service club’s volunteers—who use proceeds to support youth soccer, baseball and scholarships for up to 10,000 Arlington kids—are seeking a new vacant lot.