INTERPRETING AMERICA’S FIRST GRECIAN STYLE HOUSE: THE ARCHITECTURAL LEGACY OF GEORGE WASHINGTON PARKE CUSTIS AND GEORGE HADFIELD
Rudy, William George
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Arlington House, located within Arlington National Cemetery and now managed by the National Park Service, was built in a three phase, sixteen-year construction sequence (1802-1818), and is considered the first American example of adapting the principles of Grecian style architecture to a domestic building. Despite its historic designation as a National Monument in 1925, the interpretation at Arlington House does not adequately portray the significance of its early history and architecture nor its contribution to the development of the nation’s capital. Federal legislation requires the site interpretation to portray the period of April 1861, when its last occupants, General Robert E. Lee and his family, departed following Virginia’s secession from the Union. The emphasis on Lee’s tenancy overshadows the early history of Arlington House and the contributions of its owner, George Washington Parke Custis, and architect, George Hadfield. By providing a comprehensive historical overview of the development of Arlington House, this research is intended to: (1) outline the major factors that shaped its history to promote a broader understanding of its national significance as a historic site; and (2) promote a greater appreciation of architect George Hadfield’s professional accomplishments and his contribution towards developing an American vernacular form of residential Greek Revival architecture. This paper will argue for a more broadly representative site interpretation that expands the current interpretation by placing greater emphasis on the significance of its early history and architectural design. Identifying the factors that have shaped the historical and architectural significance of Arlington House is critical in advocating for a comprehensive approach to its public site interpretation. Ultimately, this research questions the relevancy of the existing federal legislation that mandates the interpretation while advocating a policy change that seeks to incorporate a broader approach to how site interpretation is presented at house museums managed by the National Park Service.
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