published Thursday, July 17th, 2014

$12.3 million gift to help restore Robert E. Lee's home

Philanthropist David Rubenstein walks through the historic Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Thursday, July 17, 2014.
Philanthropist David Rubenstein walks through the historic Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Thursday, July 17, 2014.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ARLINGTON, Va. — A historic plantation originally built as a monument to George Washington overlooking the nation's capital, a site that later was home to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and 63 slaves, will be restored to its historical appearance after a $12.3 million gift announced Thursday.

David Rubenstein, a billionaire history buff and co-founder of The Carlyle Group, said he is giving the National Park Foundation the funds needed for a full restoration of the historic house, grounds and slave quarters to show visitors how they appeared in 1860, as well as an overhaul of the site's museum exhibits. Rubenstein said the site crowns the most sacred land in the country, Arlington National Cemetery, but needed major repairs.

Rubenstein also has given multimillion dollar gifts in recent years to restore the Washington Monument, the first president's Mount Vernon estate and Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello, including a recreation of its historic slave quarters.

"The goal is to remind people of American history," Rubenstein said. "I think when you're restoring history, you should remind people of the good and the bad."

Arlington House, as it is known, was built between 1802 and 1818 by Washington's step grandson, George Washington Parke Custis and his slaves on a hilltop overlooking the new capital city and the Potomac River. Lee later married into the family, and it became his family's plantation estate.

After Lee resigned from the Union army and joined the Confederacy, Union troops captured the estate during the Civil War and made it their military headquarters to defend Washington from Virginia. Graffiti from Civil War soldiers is still visible in the mansion's attic.

After the war, the area became a community for emancipated slaves, and Union troops began burying their war dead on the grounds, in part to prevent Lee from returning. It eventually became Arlington National Cemetery, the burial site for many soldiers as well as President John F. Kennedy.

The 200-year-old house and grounds symbolize the nation's reconciliation after the Civil War, said National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, but it is in poor condition.

The roof leaks inside, and the climate control system is so unstable some artwork can't be displayed. Decorative paint on the building's facade is peeling away. Exhibits in a nearby museum building haven't been updated in 30 years. The needs are part of an $11 billion backlog on maintenance across the national parks.

"We frankly do not get enough appropriations on an annual basis to take care of these places," so private support is critical, Jarvis said.

Still, the home is the most visited historic house in the national park system. It receives about 650,000 visitors each year, and between 1 and 2 million people visit the grounds, park officials said.

"As you can imagine, that's fantastic but it also leads to a certain level of wear and tear," said Project Mangaer Brandon Bies.

Some restoration planning has already begun, and designs will be drafted later this year. Much of the work will be completed in late 2015 through 2016.

Plans call for scaffolding to be built around the brick-and-stucco house for artisan painters to restore the decorative paint design that looks like marble. Interior systems will be replaced. Slave quarters will be completely restored, along with the gardens and grounds.

Art and decorative features brought more than 150 years ago from Washington's Mount Vernon estate and from Lee's West Point office will be conserved. Even Lee's plumbing system that provided early flush toilets inside when such contraptions were extremely rare in the 19th century will be restored.

The work may require the house to close for a short time during periods of low visitation in the late fall and winter, but other parts of the site will remain open.

"It's an extraordinary site," Rubenstein said, "and I think all Americans will benefit from having it restored."

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