Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The nationwide movement to flesh out our history of slavery is coming to Reagan National Airport.

Specifically, the interpretive park on site of the 18th-century Abingdon Plantation, which history buffs access through parking garage 1 and 2, is due for new signage.

In much of 20th century historiography, the site was noted as the property of Alexandria’s namesake family the Alexanders (original mansion built 1740s), then the Custis family — Nelly was born there and George Washington slept there. Then came the Wise family, then the Hunters — one a Civil War memoirist — and finally a family of 20th-century owners — Vivian Thomas Ford, who was born there in 1912 — before the home was destroyed in a 1930 fire.

The 1980s-90s saw a battle to preserve the site against plans by the airport authorities to pave it over for more parking. It was led by Arlington Historical Society stalwarts Bernie Berne and Sherman Pratt, and required state legislation. Reconstructed ruins became a park.  

But descriptions and credit to the enslaved workers who formed the majority of souls on that site were unheralded before Arlington historian and attorney George Dodge dug up records for the Arlington Historical Magazine in 1999.

Flash forward to 2023. The Arlington Historical Society-led “Memorializing the Enslaved” project has unearthed fresh documentation of the African-Americans who toiled at Abingdon. Deep analysis was also just published by Howard University historian Thomas Foster.

The on-site action now underway reflects a joint effort by the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office, its Department of Historic Resources and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. They are fulfilling a 1994 memorandum of agreement, executed in consultation with the Arlington Historical Society, Office of Historic Alexandria, Arlington County Planning and Preservation Arlington.

Planners have produced three draft interpretive exhibit panels to be added to the park, which have won approvals this month. They acknowledge that the existing signage dealt solely with the white property owners and so now offer “a more humanistic focus.”

The new texts, designed to blend in with the earlier panels, include:

·“Becoming Visible: Meet the Enslaved at Abingdon Plantation” provides an overview of the lives of the plantation’s enslaved population and lists nearly 100 individuals (often first names only) derived from historical records.

·“The Dress” tells the story of Charlotte, an enslaved seamstress who endured a difficult but ultimately positive experience associated with a particular dress.

·“The Groom” tells the story of one enslaved individual, Peter Hardiman, who served at Abingdon and other properties who was a well-respected equestrian groom and mule breeder.

The modern additions should make the airport park worth a return visit.       


Yet another twist in the tortuous tale of the two-decade-old “Monster House” at N. 27th and Sycamore Sts.

It began with a professor’s controversial, three-story-box-like design for a structure thought to have been intended as a group home. It changed ownership, was upgraded architecturally and rented to young singles. Then last year the nonprofit Pathway Homes worked a deal to turn the seven-bedroom unit into a group home for mentally ill adults.

This month, as I was tipped off by neighborhood activist John Seymour, Pathways withdrew the application long pending with the county. The renovation costs were too high, said President and CEO Dr. Lambert-Woodard, so the group purchased other properties for that mission. Current tenants, for now, can stay.


Before the Ballston horizon was lined with glass towers, an early and now beloved condo building was erected by Paramount Communities Inc.

This Sept. 10, the good residents of Hyde Park Condominiums (named for London’s famous urban retreat), next to the Harris-Teeter on N. Glebe Rd., celebrated the 50th anniversary of what originally was an apartment building. I was treated to their plaza    cookout, trivia contest and music from the 1970s spun by chief engineer Ramon Wye. A good, vibrant community.