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Robert E. Lee’s estate is getting a thorough makeover.

Brandon Bies, the new site manager for Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s antebellum estate, is leading a tour of the mansion and grounds. Without breaking stride, he points to a dense grove of towering trees nearby, noting they are the last remnant of old-growth forest in Arlington, Virginia.

The foundation of Lee’s ice house can still be found among those trees, Bies explains. He is clearly fascinated by his surroundings, but busy. There is much to be done.

Arlington House is in the midst of the most comprehensive restoration in its nearly 200-year history. Already, new fire suppression and climate control systems have been installed, and future work will involve plastering and repairing deteriorating walls and stairways, building handicapped-accessible restrooms and restoring the north slave quarters and opening them for interpretation. “I consider myself extremely fortunate, and humbled, to be entrusted with managing Arlington House at such an important time,” Bies says. “Both the restoration project and the Sesquicentennial are events that will have a lasting impact on Arlington House for the next 50 years.”

Construction began on the house in 1802 by George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of George Washington, whose daughter Mary married Lee in 1831 and continued to reside in the home with her husband and parents. It was here, in a second-floor bedchamber, that Lee resigned his Union Army commission in April 1861 and made the game-changing decision to join the Confederacy. Not long afterward, the Union began burying their dead here, creating Arlington National Cemetery. Although surrounded by the cemetery, the building falls under the auspices of the National Park Service, which is spearheading the restoration.

Already, furniture and other artifacts—from the Washington, Custis and Lee eras—have been removed to allow for the installation of the fire suppression and heating and cooling systems. (Most of the artifacts are on temporary display at Friendship Hill National Historic Site in Pennsylvania.) Restorers took care to hide ductwork behind walls or in other areas that are less visible to visitors, and the next phase includes the construction of an underground utility bunker that will house the controls for the mechanical systems and fire suppression pumps. The work isn’t glamorous, Bies says, but it’s critical. “All aspects [of the project] are incredibly important—the restoration of the slave quarters, the plaster and paint repairs,” Bies says. “But the installation of the fire suppression and the climate control systems will ensure the long-term preservation of the historic collections and the mansion itself.”

Most of the mansion’s main rooms will receive a complete restoration, including lead paint stripping, plaster repair and repainting. The most significant effort involves the Lee bedchamber, where the east wall has sagged significantly. The U.S. Army attempted a fix in the 1920s, but those repairs are now failing. The Park Service plans to retain two sections of original, intact plaster, but remaining 1920s plaster will be demolished. Then restorers will decide how to stop, slow or reverse the sagging before the wall is replastered and repainted to as close to its historic appearance as possible.

“I think this is an opportune time to bring the house back to its Civil War–era appearance,” Bies says. “There are lots of aspects of the mansion that were ‘restored’ incorrectly over the last 100 years, both by the Army as well as by the early NPS. Now that we have conducted so much more research on the circa-1860 appearance of Arlington House, there is no better time than the Sesquicentennial to return the site to its former glory.”

Indeed, the restoration’s timing seems providential. Last October Arlington House hosted a re-creation of the 1860 presidential election (Lincoln won the mock vote, naturally). This spring, from April 16 to 24, the Park Service will examine “Lee’s Great Decision” in a series of events, including talks, tours, music and dramatic readings. A vigil will mark the evening when Lee resigned his commission.

Going forward, the site will likely host two major events each year through 2015. The Park Service is also planning events about Freedman’s Village—created on the estate in 1863 to promote education and self-sufficiency among freed slaves—and the property’s conversion to a cemetery. The collections should return to the house in 2012.

“Every once in a while, you have to pinch yourself,” Bies says. “You realize you are standing in the room where Lee resigned his commission….There is a lot of pressure to make sure the NPS has utilized all of the best historic evidence, and the most historically correct methods, to get this restoration right.”


Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.