22.01.2011 - 28.01.2011
January 23-26, 2011
I love what historical homes reveal about the individuals who resided there, how they dealt with the day-to-day practicalities (cooking, bathing) at the time, and what living in the geographic region was like. We've seen a lot of them, some famous, some not, all interesting.
So after our disappointing tour of the White House, we visited two dead presidents', and one leader of the confederate army's (also dead), homes, where it was unlikely our voyeurism would be interrupted by a real, live First Lady: Mr. Vernon, Arlington, and Woodrow Wilson's home.
Mt. Vernon is a lovely farm house with covered walkways on either side leading to the slaves' quarters (on the left) and the kitchen, and other service buildings, such as the laundry, meat smoking house, and stables on the right. It was a real working farm, and Washington considered himself, most of all, a farmer. However, given how many years he was fighting wars and being president, I think Martha deserves equal billing in that department. Beautiful grounds, with lots of vegetable gardens, and a working greenhouse, kept warm by fires tended 24/7 by slaves in the winter. When George died, Martha closed their bedroom door, never to use it again, and moved up to the third floor.
It was freezing cold (in the 'teens) the day we were there. We stood out on the "backyard" lawn overlooking the Potomac and listened to the ice crack on the river below. Another interesting tidbit: in the 1830's a group of women got together to raise the money to buy and preserve Mt. Vernon. I think they called themselves the "Ladies of Mt. Vernon." They had to make land payments during the Civil War and received a special dispensation from President Lincoln to cross from confederate-held land into Washington to pay the bills. Nice going gals! The ladies group still runs the place.
Mount Vernon from the back side and George Washington's view of the Potomac
We also stumbled upon the Woodrow Wilson House while trying to get our visas at the Indian Embassy (didn't succeed, another story; will try again.) Anyway, in the tony Embassy Row is the house Wilson lived in after his presidency. Fabulous place, every bit, all furnishings, etc. completely authentic due to preservation by his wife (am I sensing a theme about historic homes here?). Anyway, it was another bitter cold day, our tour guide (with a B.A. in diplomacy, really) had a lot of information few visitors, so we got a great tour. Among everything we already knew and learned about Wilson's career and presidency, he owned a baseball signed by King Edward V (personal gift--at that time presidents could keep personal gifts), and by an odd twist of naval fate, he ended up with floral upholstery (and matching curtains) in his bedroom.
Woodrow Wilson's souvenir base ball and Woodrow Wilson's chair
Finally, we visited Robert E. Lee's home at Arlington, now Arlington National Cemetery. I've read the diary of Lee's daughter, and believe me, the family was very, very bitter that Lincoln turned their home into a cemetery for Union soldiers (originally). Actually, Arlington was the home of Lee's father-in-law, Custis, who was the step-grandson of George Washington. Apparently, it was a beautiful home on a hill overlooking the Potomac (like that of his grandfather), with lovely gardens and over 2,000 acres. Lee's wife inherited it. Lee gave up his commission with the U.S. Army, signed on to lead the Confederate Army, and when the house and land was captured by the Union, it was turned into a hospital and then cemetery, thus ensuring it could never be used as a home again. About 1950, what is called the "Memorial Bridge" was built across the Potomac. By design, the bridge creates a straight line between the Lincoln Memorial and the Arlington House--signifying the joining of the two sides of the Civil War. (Although, interestingly, the statue of Lincoln is turned away from Arlington, but a minor point.)
You might also be interested to know that President Kennedy is buried right below Arlington House, in that straight line between the house and the Lincoln Memorial. Some might think this has to do with his work on civil rights, and that might be why his grave is lined up just so. However, the selection of near to the Arlington House was because Jackie Kennedy remembered that once, when there for a dedication of something, Jack Kennedy had remarked to her that he thought Arlington House was the most peaceful place he had ever seen.
Brad at the Memorial Bridge and Lincoln Memorial