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Lee's Arlington House Offers Rare Public Access To Rooms

Deborah Fitts

- (January 2007) Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee and his family for more than 30 years, will offer visitors a rare glimpse behind the scenes while the 1802 structure undergoes major restoration in the coming year.

On Nov. 2 the National Park Service (NPS) property was closed to the public for 20 days while workmen removed the entire museum collection from the house. The 3,300 items of furniture, books and personal effects that once belonged to the Lees were boxed up and removed to enable workers to undertake lead-paint abatement, plaster and window repairs, rehabilitation of original flooring, and design work for fire suppression and humidity control.

The restoration will total several million dollars, according to Site Manager Kendall Thompson, and will be done in several phases as money becomes available. This first phase will take at least a year, he predicted.

The 1802 mansion reopened Nov. 22, allowing visitors an unprecedented look inside the building. With the collection removed, rooms no longer have to be chained off at the doorways, and visitors are able to walk into the rooms for the first time.

Thompson said park rangers are taking advantage of the change by offering new tours addressing the building's architectural significance and unique construction.

"A visit to the house now is pretty neat," said Thompson. "This provides an incredible opportunity to wander through the rooms. You'll be able to essentially see the bones of the house. When you stand inside, it's a totally different feeling. You can stand under the archway where Lee got married."

Meanwhile, the collection was transported for temporary keeping to another NPS property, Friendship Hill National Historic Site, the 1789 Pennsylvania mansion of Albert Gallatin during his tenure as secretary of the treasury under Thomas Jefferson.

Friendship Hill was built around the same time as Arlington House, and represents "the same social strata," Thompson said. It is located in western Pennsylvania just north of the West Virginia border.

Thompson noted that Friendship Hill has fire-suppression and climate-control systems, but no furniture - so the Arlington House collection will have plenty of room to go on display, it will be secure, and it will aid in the interpretation of Friendship Hill.

Thompson said about one-third of the furniture was original to Arlington House, much of it coming from Mount Vernon. Lee's wife, Mary Custis Lee, was the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Washington by a previous marriage, who was raised at Mount Vernon. The federal government seized Arlington House during the Civil War and began Arlington National Cemetery around it.

According to Thompson, the move to Friendship Hill saves NPS about $200,000 in museum storage costs. Eventually, in a year or longer, the collection will return to Arlington House.

"We've never done this before," he said of the move. The last major renovation at Arlington House took place in 1925.

Arlington House is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Also open are the kitchen and flower gardens, the Slave Quarters and bookstore. The 19-acre property attracts half a million visitors a year.

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