Saturday, January 8, 2011

Plantation Architecture: part 2, Arlington House

The following pictures show pieces of the Robert E. Lee plantation home, called the Custis-Lee Mansion or Arlington House. Robert E. Lee married a Custis cousin. They share family with Martha Washington.

The mansion used to overlook orchards. Part of the war reparations (which besides describing payment also describe 'repair' of injury) was that 624 acres of land surrounding this plantation was deeded to the nation for a military grave site, the place we call Arlington National Cemetery. Later, the house was purchased by the Federal Government. The history of the transaction is itself a sign of Northern resentment and shady dealings, later made right with the Custis family in part by Abraham Lincoln's own son, Robert Todd.

It's interesting to note that the first Memorial Service at Arlington National Cemetery was officiated by President Herbert Hoover in 1929, a man that most of the U.S. despised at the time. And interesting that the Lincoln Memorial is sited to architecturally answer Arlington House, starting from 1867 when the site was only swamp. Every single marble slab on the Lincoln Memorial is a specific planned inclusion; every possible message that could be made is reinforced in the execution of it. Just as the Custis-Lee House was meant to advance one family, the Lincoln Memorial was always meant to include every state and every citizen of the United States. It was built to advance Union: to honor the man who stood for Union.

President Lincoln faced off Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in his last, most fateful years. Now the Lincoln Memorial faces and answers Arlington House. The arc between these two historical tacticians calls and answers to victory and defeat, personal sacrifice to personal loss, classical Greek to classical Roman, justice to injustice, a temple in a flat park to a home on a hill. Along this arc rests the costs of victory, defeat, ultimate effort, and ideals in contention: our nation's military casualties.

Arlington National Cemetery is administered by the Department of the Army. The Custis-Lee home is administered by the National Parks Service. It is currently undergoing some renovation, but it needs a lot more.

Yesterday, I posted on my ambivalence to historic preservation of plantation architecture. But for this site, I have none. Because it stands amidst Arlington's hallowed ground, because the Lincoln Memorial answers it in full, I believe it should be restored to the utmost. Every strength we give the building shows what Lincoln was up against. Every trapping we add to its interior gives Lincoln's complex simplicity and stern but compassionate code all the more significance.

The next pictures are not so beautiful. I could have cropped them to be, but I wish to show you what kind of work preservation might entail.

A humidity sensor on a marble mantel with oak-leaf carvings.

Probably much more than a simple paint job required.
Cracking lintel.
The slave quarters have been partially preserved and provide their own answer to the house and to Lincoln himself. The Parks Service exhibit inside shows that they tried to preserve as many memories as possible from these slaves, through the gathering of geneologies and spoken or written accounts.

Mrs. Lee liked to entertain, whether General Lee was home or not. She had a built-in chaperone, a cousin who never married, and whose economic health was therefore precarious. As a family hanger-on, she was apparently irritatingly cheerful. The slave quarters exhibit recalls a slave who used to do a good imitation of her. It called to my mind that the woman's suffrage movement and the abolition movement were entirely linked in their first years--that women could rarely own property, and that no slave could.

But most of all, the story was exceedingly funny. And I think that is also worth memorializing:

Next to the house on the hill, a tiny cabin held a contingent of oppressed people. But even oppressed, they still had intelligence, and opinions, and many tactics for endurance, including humor. These slaves are part of Lincoln's self-perceived care and duty; his Memorial looks to them as well. The slave quarters also represent the Custis-Lee stake in the argument: their right to extract care and duty. The argument expressed in the architecture is therefore three-fold. The slaves were more than a class or concern: They were individuals with wit. The account also recalls that history is full of little moments. The slave's humor under duress is akin to the humor of military men who endure under duress.

Well-built but small, and no amenities inside.

The Custis-Lee Mansion and its slave quarters make Lincoln's memorial complete: they recall the totality of moral argument and military effort, political certitude and uncertain outcomes stated whole in Lincoln's Second Inaugural address. The slave cabin finishes out the Custis-Lee argument in a moral sense, reminding us that grandeur lived through the toil of others. The slave quarters also resonate to that other answer: those that lie all around, out of pain at last and some for over a century, in Arlington National Cemetery. They remind us that those that suffered in war are more than a number. They were individuals who did not attain, for the most part, their full span of years and its expression.

May they rest in peace, along this arc of conflict and care, under flat turf or on the hill. May we care over these questions, and these dead, forever.


Bob G. said...

I had the opportunity to take a tour of the mansion...I found it a wonderful experience.

And at 5'7" tall, the "fit" was JUST right.
But that one staircase was NARROW!!!

They did have the "greenhouse" on the rear of the house restored with a LOT of flowers, too.
(that was back in the early 1990s.

Glad you showed this.

Have a great weekend.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
I am so glad you enjoyed it! I think you got a lot out of your trip to DC, eh???

Thanks for taking a look. I'm running late today, but I sure am glad you stopped by.


Slamdunk said...

I was wondering where you were going with this when you mentioned it the other day.

I have not been to that sight as a child. Thanks for the info--it is an interesting structure and location.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slam,
Yes, I think this set of TWO VERY LONG POSTS is me on the way to thinking of something bigger and more focussed.

But anyway, you are very welcome!
Thanks for stopping by to check out Ann T. in progress.