Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Some victories arrived this month for those who value Arlington history, though preservationists felt the strain of uphill battles to stay in touch with our past roots.

As a board member of the Arlington Historical Society, I had to get in touch in July with my college-years mover-man skills. I joined 14 other volunteers over several days packing up some 5,000 artifacts (many delicate) stored on three floors at the Arlington Historical Museum at the Hume School. The valuables were then trucked for storage in Crystal City space (on shelves we assembled), donated by JBG Smith Cares.

The purpose was to prepare for a long-in-the-works renovation of the 1891 building owned by the society (which since its founding in 1956 has received no taxpayer money). Coming months will bring multiple improvements designed by Arlington-based John Milner Associates Preservation, an architectural firm whose deeply researched plan spawned an ongoing fundraising campaign by our all-volunteer group.

When complete, the renovation will add refurbished windows, modern HVAC, plumbing and electrical upgrades and a new exhibit space.

The big pack-in — organized by local history power couple Mark and Annette Benbow — collectively put in 116 hours. And thanks to the 20 other individuals who delivered boxes, bubble wrap and wrapping paper, the effort saved the society $4,500 from what was paid to the fine professionals from Bookstore Movers.

We transported a chandelier, a Victorian love seat and a 19th-century dress hoop, along with portraits of Robert E. Lee, 19th-century entrepreneur Frank Hume (who donated the land for the school) and 1930s Arlington power couple Harry and Alice Fellows (he was our first county board chair). Then we packed the Native American artifacts, glassware, museum displays, old stoves and telephones, a 1930s refrigerator, pre-9/11 Pentagon bricks, civil defense equipment and artifacts on pioneer African-American firefighters.
Our only mishap (unless we discover damage when we unpack) was a basement flood, though its harm was contained.

The society was not thrilled when the county released its Capital Improvement Plan in July and did not include, as we had hoped, an earmark for replacing the Hume School windows. County staff, however, suggest that our nonprofit has a good shot at the money from a broader $300,000 preservation set-aside. Would be well-earned.

For nearly three years, county planners of the new park at Crystal City’s S. Eads St. at Army Navy Dr. have cast about for a name for the teardrop-shaped parcel. Suggestions from local citizens and the Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee favored the familiar Teardrop, followed by Canal Park or Pentagon Park.

But longtime history enthusiast Bernie Berne this spring offered the name Arlington Junction. It would mark the early 20th-century site of the “major transfer point for people taking electric trolleys to and from points as far south as Mount Vernon, as far north as downtown Washington and as far west as Vienna and Fairfax City, as well as Rosslyn and Arlington National Cemetery,” Berne told me. His proposal was backed in May by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board.

On July 26, the Park and Recreation Commission, after Berne testified, unanimously agreed with that nod to history. The final call will come in a county board vote after Labor Day.

Tom Dickinson, leader of the preservation network Save Historic Arlington, put out a call for monitoring the site of the demolished 19th-century Febrey-Lothrop house.

Crews from Toll Brothers have been cutting trees on Wilson Blvd. and N. Madison St. to make way for 40-odd luxury homes. Activists were encouraged to take photos from the public sidewalk, as the builders have rejected on-site archaeological inspections of where a Civil War encampment stood.

Lo and behold, neighbor Kristin Gillig and her son produced a photo showing, amid the tree rubble, what might be an old Latin Cross Bottony, possibly from a rosary. They were able to reach in and rescue the artifact, which is being examined.