Arlington House Rehabilitation

October 2018 Update: Archeologists Discover George and Martha Washington’s Porcelain at Arlington House
 
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4 minutes, 51 seconds

Learn about the archeology happening at Arlington House as part of the rehabilitation project.

 
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Learn about a remarkable discovery at Arlington House during the rehabilitation of the mansion, outbuildings, and grounds.

 
Archeologists dig in front of Arlington House.
National Park Service archeologists dig in front of the mansion in August, 2018.

NPS Photo

 
NPS Archeologists Digs a Test Unit at Arlington House
NPS Archeologist Michael Roller excavates a test pit at Arlington House.

NPS Photo

In a truly remarkable discovery, National Park Service (NPS) archeologists at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, have found pieces of porcelain likely from President George Washington and his wife, Martha, during archeological investigations of the site.

The archeological investigations were part of the initial rehabilitation work on the grounds at Arlington House. The National Park Service officially broke ground on the $12.35 million rehabilitation of Arlington House this summer, thanks to the generosity of philanthropist Mr. David Rubenstein.
 
Some of the ceramic fragments recovered were pieces of the ‘States’ porcelain, originally owned by the Washingtons and used at Mount Vernon. In 1796, a Dutch merchant presented Martha Washington with a set of these porcelain plates that contained her monogram (“MW”) and was surrounded by the names of all 15 United States at that time. Intact matching pieces of this service set reside in the collections of some museums, such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
 
Fragments of States Porcelain in Hand
A piece of “States” porcelain discovered at Arlington House in 2018.

NPS Photo

 
Intact States Saucer
An original piece of ‘States’ porcelain in the collections of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Photo

 
Drawing of the states porcelain by Benson Lossing
This is an engraving of some of the ‘States’ porcelain that was at Arlington House in the 19th century.  It was published in a history book by Benson Lossing in 1859.

Benson Lossing Engraving

 
The Washington Family
The Washington Family, by Edward Savage, 1796.  This painting of the Washington family by Edward Savage depicts George and Martha Washington with her grandchildren, George Washington Parke Custis and Eleanor Parke Custis, and an unidentified enslaved individual.

National Gallery of Art

How did this Washington porcelain end up at Arlington? Following the deaths of George and Martha Washington, Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, inherited and purchased hundreds of items from Mount Vernon to bring with him to his new home, Arlington House. As he envisioned Arlington House serving as a memorial to George Washington, Custis proudly displayed and used the Washington porcelain at Arlington.
 
Martha Washington's Will
The will of Martha Washington clearly lays out that George Washington Parke Custis was to receive the ‘States’ porcelain and Society of the Cincinnati porcelain, fragments of both were recently found at Arlington House.

Fairfax County Circuit Court

 
Fragment of Society of the Cincinnati Porcelain
A piece of Society of the Cincinnati porcelain uncovered at Arlington House in 2018.

NPS Photo

Two other pieces of porcelain discovered feature the insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati. The Society of the Cincinnati was a fraternal organization that appeared at the conclusion of the War for Independence composed of former officers of the Continental Army. The Society was named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who was a Roman hero who left his farm to fight in the defense of Rome, only to return to his plough to be a humble farmer rather than seize power for himself. George Washington was often referred to as the American Cincinnatus because he similarly refused power and he would serve as the Society’s first president from 1783 to 1799. During this time, Washington purchased hundreds of porcelain plates and cups emblazoned with the emblem of the Society of the Cincinnati. These were used by the Washington family while they were in Philadelphia and at their home Mount Vernon.
 
Society of the Cincinnati Porcelain
A piece of Society of the Cincinnati porcelain in the collection at Arlington House.

NPS Photo

These finds demonstrate Arlington House’s original roles as both the residence of the Custis family and a memorial to George Washington. It is rare for archeologists to find objects that can be so clearly identified as to who made, owned, and used an artifact.
 
Archeologists sifting at Arlington House.
Archeologists digging and sifting at Arlington House.

NPS Photo

These significant finds will be documented, and the artifacts will be washed, accessioned, cataloged and eventually placed on exhibit when the house reopens.
 
Fragment of a toothbrush head.
A wooden toothbrush head uncovered at Arlington House in 2018.  The holes would have been where the bristles were attached.

NPS Photo

In addition to these significant porcelain fragments, archeologists found a variety of artifacts dating from when the mansion was constructed between 1802 and 1818, including ceramics, coins, personal items (including the head of a toothbrush), and kitchen refuse, such as oyster shells, animal bones and charcoal.These items, in addition to the soils and the context in which they were found, will tell us more about the early years at Arlington House and the lives of the Custis family and the enslaved people who lived here.
 

These finds occurred as a result of the digging happening around the historic mansion in order to find, remove, replace, and add new utility lines leading to the mansion. These utilities, including those providing water, gas, and electricity to the house, as well as draining rainwater away from the house, are old and need to be replaced. The new and improved lines will better serve the long-term preservation of the site.

National Park Service archeologists also observed areas below the ground that appeared undisturbed from previous utility work. To investigate the potential presence of artifacts and other historic materials, they carefully conducted an archeological investigation. Through these excavations, archeologists discovered intact layers of soil dating back to the early 1800s when the mansion was first constructed.

 
Archeologists monitoring excavations
Archeologists monitor digging around the site as new utility lines are replaced.

NPS Photo.

The National Park Service is committed to preserving and protecting not only the historic features above ground, but also the important archeological features and artifacts underground. National Park Service archeologists monitored all the work where digging occurred on site in order to identify archeological resources and investigate archeological findings when necessary, as well as to ensure any potential disruptions to artifacts and features were avoided or minimized.

The National Park Service will continue to monitor all the work at Arlington as the rehabilitation continues.

 
Pieces of the Washington 'States' Porcelain
A closer look at the recovered pieces and you can notice in the upper right hand corner the head of a snake eating its own tail.  This is an ouroboros, an ancient symbol for eternity, in this case symbolizing the perpetual American Union.

NPS Photo

 
 
Fences around Arlington House
Fencing around the Arlington House site.

NPS Photo.

June 2018 Update: New Temporary Visitor Center and Museum Exhibits


Fencing has been erected around the historic Arlington House and grounds as work begins to rehabilitate and restore Arlington House. During this time, the house and grounds will be closed to the public until the fall of 2019.

For visitors who visit the site during this closure, a temporary visitor center and museum exhibit has been set up inside the Women in Military Service for America Memorial (WIMSA), located near the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. In this temporary visitor center, visitors can talk with park rangers, read displays about the history of Arlington House, the people who called it home, and its transition into a national memorial. Rangers will also offer regular tours and programs at WIMSA during the closure.

When the rehabilitation project is completed, visitors will see Arlington House as it was in 1860, with rooms restored to their historical appearance. Additionally, the quarters for the enslaved people of Arlington House will be restored to better represent and tell their stories. As visitors move between the mansion and the new museum and bookstore, they will pass along accessible paths that stretch through the restored grounds, including heirloom gardens. People who cannot visit in person will enjoy a robust experience through virtual tours, complete with detailed displays of the rooms and objects that belonged to George Washington and the Lee family.

 
Rangers wait to greet visitors at the temporary Ranger station and museum exhibit
While Arlington House is being rehabilitated, visitors can meet with Rangers and see temporary exhibits at the Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA) Memorial near the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery.

NPS Photo.

 
Arlington House in the fall.
Arlington House in the fall.

NPS Photo.

In July of 2014, philanthropist David M. Rubenstein announced a $12.35 million donation, a lead gift in the National Park Foundation’s Centennial Campaign for America’s National Parks, to restore and improve access to Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial.

Mr. Rubenstein said, “I am honored to support the National Park Service’s renovation of historic Arlington House built in honor of George Washington and located on hallowed ground atop Arlington National Cemetery. I hope that upon its restoration, Arlington House will appropriately remind visitors of America’s rich history and our country’s good fortune to have such a unique site to honor our veterans, especially those who gave the last full measure of devotion on behalf of this nation.”

The rehabilitation project consists of three distinct components: physical construction and site improvements; advancements for the visitor experience; and enhancement to the museum collections and artifact conservation. Mr. Rubenstein’s donation was also leveraged by the Arlington House Foundation for a “Save America’s Treasure” grant,which is intended to preserve nationally significant historic properties and collections. Additionally, Exciting new interpretive exhibits will enhance the visitor experience by providing multiple perspectives on the Arlington House and the plantation. Target date for reopening the site is December of 2018. Superintendent Alex Romero said of the donation, “While the National Park Service has a very important mission, to preserve America’s most important places, volunteerism and patriotic philanthropy provide a level of excellence that the service could not achieve without those who are willing to donate their hard earned money and valuable time.”
 

News at Arlington House

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    Last updated: November 6, 2018

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    Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
    700 George Washington Memorial Parkway
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    McLean , VA 22101

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