Commentary, Guest Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

  Herewith a nearly forgotten local Christmas story.

  Trinity Presbyterian Church, up the “hillside” from Westover Village, boasts an outdoor chapel in the woods, a rich history of activism in the 1950s civil rights movement and the onetime location on its property of the grave of 19th-century plantation owner Basil Hall (1806-1888). That name-sake for Arlington’s African-American community of Hall’s Hill, a cruel enslaver, owned much of the land where Trinity now stands, but his grave was moved in 1939 to the Oakwood Cemetery in Falls Church.

  The ambitious parishioners of Trinity—founded in the 1940s, its 75th anniversary celebrated in 2019—once made their mark regularly at Christmastime on the Arlington skyline.

The tale, sketched in church member-author Gil Klein’s history booklet “Trinity at 75: The History of a Welcoming Church,” was recently elaborated upon to me by a congregant from nearby Tara-Leeway Heights neighborhood, Rick Rhoads, seconded by his boyhood friend Blake Rhodes.

It was just after Thanksgiving in 1952 when Trinity’s Pastor Bill Foster and Lt. Buss Bayliss of the Arlington Police led a committee that had a brainstorm. They carpentered together a 16-foot wooden frame shaped like the Star of Bethlehem. In the slats they drilled holes to hold light sockets and commandeered coffee cans painted white to act as reflectors, as detailed in an Evening Star feature for Dec. 21, 1963. Using manly strength, they pulled it up the hill behind the church building (opened in 1948) and bolstered it with a thick cable between two oak trees. It would soon be paired with a large wooden cross that Trinity could display during Lent. In the second year, a 50-foot section of three-inch pipe was used to elevate the lighted star.

  Then in 1957 church member Henry McCloud, who owned a construction company, upped the ante to make the star more impressively visible. At a sheet metal shop in Franconia, he fabricated a 60-foot steel tower. It was trucked over on a double trailer with cranes to be installed on Trinity’s six-acre, 100 feet-high hill, lifted, via a winch and cable, onto a poured concrete foundation. From then on, the annual installation of the star could be accomplished in just three hours.

   For the next two decades, the annual Christmas star display at Trinity Presbyterian would be seen from as far away as Four Mile Run in Alexandria. Pilots flying into National Airport were reported pointing it out to passengers. But just as “all things must pass,” the church’s skyline star tower was eventually worn down by the elements and became unsafe. A new generation took over the pews of Trinity.

  “My friends and I used to play a lot in the woods behind Trinity in the 1970s and early 1980s,” Rick Rhoads recently recalled. “There were remnants of the Star Tower which I suspect had fallen into disrepair and stopped being used in the early 1970s. The tower and foundation must have been removed in the early 1980s. What was amazing back then,” he added, “is that none of the adults in the neighborhood seemed to know anything about it; I don’t even remember it being brought up by members of the church.”

The spirit of the Christmas tale, however, lives on.

**

    Rep. Don Beyer’s bill to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from Arlington House appeared to be dying in the final days of the 117th Congress.

    The proposal pressed by descendants of those enslaved there before the Civil War has drawn nearly 1,300 names on a Change.org petition, notes spokesman Steve Hammond. The bill would rename what since 1972 has been “Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial” as simply: “Arlington House National Historic Site.”    A Beyer spokesman told me chances slipped when it was not attached to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act cleared Dec. 8. I’m told there’s a small chance the version co-sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine could be attached to the major spending bill pending this week.