WHAT IS IT? Plantation home of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate armies during the Civil War. In 1883, after extensive legal wrangling with Lee’s descendents, the U.S. Congress bought the property (for a song) and turned the prized acreage into the Arlington National Cemetery.
This rating covers both the Arlington House and the National Cemetery. History, geography, tradition and custom have irrevocably entwined the two.
BEAUTY (7/10) The Arlington House sits atop the area’s highest point, looking over the nation’s capitol. Finished in 1818, the House is among the largest and most garish American residences of the early 18th century. From the hilltop, the Lee and Custis family witnessed the building of the Washington D.C., its streets, the U.S. Capitol and the White House.
George Washington Parke Custis, Arlington House’s builder and Robert E. Lee’s future father-in-law, perversely intended his Greek-temple modeled home to be the geographic focal point for the new Capital City. His showy intentions explain the House’s neoclassical entranceway and its six exaggeratedly large faux marble/sandstone Doric columns.
Custis could never have imagined how out of place and irrelevant his House would look. Despite its imposing size, the Arlington House is an afterthought to the hundreds of thousands of simple white tombstones that surround it.
The National Cemetery does have its own notable outsized white marble memorials, like the Memorial Amphitheater, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial and a few of the tombs dedicated to the most self-important Generals. But these too are overshadowed by the understated and ceaselessly watched Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, John F. Kennedy’s Eternal Flame, and the tiny white cross and nearly unmarked grave of his brother, Robert.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10) The historical achievements of those buried here are the historical achievements of our nation. Untold veterans from every War America has fought, two presidents, three Supreme Court Chief Justices, the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time, baseball’s purported inventor, Washington D.C.’s designer, the third man to walk on the moon, six of our nation’s 11 five-star admirals and generals, the first man to float the Grand Canyon, the first man to the North Pole, the founder of the National Geographic Society... The list never ends.
One man who is not buried here is Robert E. Lee. He lies in Lexington, Va. on the grounds of Washington and Lee University. After taking command of the Army of the Confederacy in 1861, he never retuned to his beloved family home. Arlington House was built by George Washington’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, and was intended to by an eternal living memorial to our first president. Custis’ only child, Mary, married Robert E. Lee in 1831.
CROWDS (8/10) A sign leading into the National Cemetery’s Visitor Center reads “Welcome to Our Nation’s Most Sacred Shrine...Please Conduct Yourselves with Dignity and Respect at All Times...These Are Hallowed Grounds”. There is no more powerful memorial in the United States.
An air of quiet and respect emanates throughout the Cemetery. The numerous visitors come dressed up. They walk softly in deep thought and with earnest thanks.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) The entrance to the National Cemetery is just off the George Washington Parkway in northern Virginia, across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. Sounds easy, right?
Michael lived in Washington D.C. for four years. On every trip he made via automobile to northern Virginia he got lost...in dozens of different ways. This time, however, we had a map and Gab on navigation. Of course, we missed the exit, passed the Pentagon and got the whole way to Crystal City before reversing course.
We should have just taken the Metro.
The National Cemetery, itself, is a large, hilly place and could prove to be a workout to people not in tiptop shape. Get a cemetery plat map and plan your route ahead of time. Or just spend the $6 and let the Tourmobile® chauffeur you around.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) The book choices at the Arlington NCEM Visitor Center and the Arlington House bookstore are both excellent. However, the selection at the Women’s Memorial is nothing short of astounding. Their store sells what must be over 1,000 books about women in military service. It would surely be impossible to find a more comprehensive collection anywhere except the Library of Congress.
COSTS (3/5) Entry into the Arlington NCEM and the Arlington House is free. Parking is not.
The Parking rates are $1.25 per hour for the first three hours, $2.00 per hour thereafter. The D.C. Metro blue line subway runs to the National Cemetery; the stop is aptly named “Arlington Cemetery”. Subway fare to Arlington from downtown D.C. is $1.35 per person.
A more stress-free tourist option is the Tourmobile® Sightseeing buses. The venerable red, white and blue shuttles have transported vacationers on a circuit to and from our Capitol City’s famous attractions since 1970, delighting scores with their canned narration and monument and museum-step deliveries. An all-day ticket runs $20.00 per adult.
At $6.50 per person, an all-day Metrorail (Subway) Pass is cheaper than the Tourmobile®, but nowhere near as convenient or entertaining. Tourmobile® runs a separate bus through the sprawling Arlington NCEM that runs $6.00 per adult, or is included with the $20.00 all day tour.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5) The NPS portion of the Site, the Arlington House, was staffed with two Rangers answering questions and recounting stories about the mansion to the many tourists on hand.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) On March 23, 2005, a temporary exhibit called the Faces of the Fallen began its run at the Women’s Memorial. The Faces of the Fallen consists of identically sized portraits of the 1,300+ American soldiers killed in the Iraq War up to the date that the exhibit began.
The exhibit’s website quotes General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff comments: “To say that this exhibition is moving would be an understatement...The artists have succeeded where our words have failed.”
The end date for this display has been extended numerous times and currently is set to finish on May 31, 2006. If you visit D.C. before Memorial Day, go to the Arlington NCEM and witness this incredible exhibit.
Arlington House’s Robert E. Lee Memorial Museum and House Tour feels neglected and half-hearted. This part of Virginia no longer revolves around proud Confederate General and the Park Service understands its rightful place.
FUN (8/10) Arlington National Cemetery provides a peaceful atmosphere to reflect on the lives and deaths that helped shape our nation. It is a fitting memorial to individuals who have served their country, both as soldiers and as citizens.
These graves do not belong only to “old white men.” the Women’s Memorial stands regally as one of the largest structures in the Site. Grave markers and the Faces of the Fallen exhibit reflect the diverse origins of our soldiers throughout our history as a country.
The Faces exhibit was unexpected and incredibly powerful. If the images of the soldiers were not enough, ad hoc memorials, handwritten notes and personal effects that have sprung around most of them remind visitors of their sacrifice and their families’ loss and grief. The kitschy-ness of the Arlington House lightened our moods but didn’t erase the emotions that the temporary exhibit evoked.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10) The Arlington NCEM is a Must See American icon, a 10 out of 10 in this category. The Arlington House, well, if you have the time it makes for a nice stop between the walk from the John F. Kennedy Gravesite to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
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