Progress versus preservation: Who wins?

by E Bellizzi September. 25, 2017 1417 views
Foreground: The reconstructed foundation of Abingdon was the home of John Custis, stepson of George Washington. Background: Renowned architect Cesar Pelli designed the airport terminal. These two worlds didn’t always peacefully coexist.

Foreground: The reconstructed foundation of Abingdon was the home of John Custis, stepson of George Washington. Background: Renowned architect Cesar Pelli designed the airport terminal. These two worlds didn’t always peacefully coexist.

It wasn’t exactly teenage rebellion, but it was a disagreement in the strongest sense. His youthful stubbornness brushed aside the sage advice of his parent whose common title, father, is respectfully referred to in uppercase letters: Founding Father George Washington. This headstrong young man, John Custis, was determined to buy a home to start a life with his new bride. Despite what Washington considered to be a high price, which included compounded interest, the Abingdon plantation in Arlington, Virginia was Custis’ choice. On Christmas Day 1778, Custis signed the purchase agreements and moved in with his family.

A marker at the historic Abingdon site includes a photo of the house taken circa 1920.

A marker at the historic Abingdon site includes a photo of the house taken circa 1920.

Headstrong, but committed to family

While he may have had a will of his own, Custis did not want to stray too far from those he loved: his mother and her husband. Martha (Custis) Washington had four children with her first husband, Colonel Daniel Parke Custis. Two children died early in childhood, the other two, John, age six, and Martha, age three, were adopted by Washington when he married their widowed mother. Aside from being owned by George Washington’s stepson, another Abingdon notable is that it was the birthplace of one of Custis’ children, and Washington’s favorite grandchild, Nelly.

The morning glow of sunrise warms the brick wall of Abingdon, the most visible and only original part of the home that is still standing.

The morning glow of sunrise warms the brick wall of Abingdon, the most visible and only original part of the home that is still standing.

Taking flight from what was once George Washington's stepson's front yard.  A rebuilt kitchen foundation in view of the terminal "domes" of visionary architect Cesar Pelli.  He designed each dome with a large oculus, circular opening, reminiscent of the Jefferson Memorial up the river.

Taking flight from what was once George Washington's stepson's front yard. A rebuilt kitchen foundation in view of the terminal "domes" of visionary architect Cesar Pelli. He designed each dome with a large oculus, circular opening, reminiscent of the Jefferson Memorial up the river.

What incredible sunrises the Custis family must have seen from their front yard facing the Potomac River.

What incredible sunrises the Custis family must have seen from their front yard facing the Potomac River.

Close-up of the original bricks that remain at the Abingdon site.

Close-up of the original bricks that remain at the Abingdon site.

Abingdon’s history: short-lived joy, followed by neglect

Debate surrounds the exact date when Abingdon was constructed, but it is generally acknowledged to have been built in the 1740’s. Rising high above the Potomac River, its lawn and flower gardens extended to the river bank. Built by family slaves who shaped trees from the nearby forest into hand-hewn joists said to have been the size of a man’s body.* It was an outstanding example of 18th century architecture. A two-story frame house, its most unusual feature was its colonial roof line with a sharp peak at the front center.

But this idyllic setting lasted only three years. In 1781, while serving as Washington’s military aide, Custis died of “camp fever” in Yorktown, Virginia. Immediately after the British surrender there, Washington rushed to the young man’s side and was with him when he died.

Custis’ widow, Eleanor, and her children remained at Abingdon. She remarried Dr. David Stuart and in 1792 the family moved from the plantation to his home in Fairfax, Virginia.

After a succession of owners the house sank into a period of neglect. Empty for years and stripped by vandals it was slated for renovation when a brush fire in 1930 burned it to the ground. The Washington Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities stabilized the ruins and commemorated the location with a plaque in 1933. It would take another 65 years until Abingdon was restored to its rightful place among historic Virginia. Like most places with a connection to the Revolution, this, too, was a place of battle: the fight over preservation versus parking.

Passengers heading from one parking garage to another en route to Terminal A.  Despite the common brown historical sign, these travelers, likely typical of most, didn't look up to notice the sign and nor did they turn to see the ruins as they hurried past.

Passengers heading from one parking garage to another en route to Terminal A. Despite the common brown historical sign, these travelers, likely typical of most, didn't look up to notice the sign and nor did they turn to see the ruins as they hurried past.

Paving over history

To understand this dispute one must remember that Abingdon was once part of 6,000-acres of land. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved plans for a new airport and these acres were sold to the Federal Government for its construction, a larger type of “bird” began landing here. In 1942, Custis’ former front yard became known as National Airport, the nation’s busiest airport at the time. Abingdon’s only visible remains: a charred brick wall stood silently as modern transportation began its encroachment on history. In addition to an airport terminal and hangar, Metro rail tracks and expanded traffic lanes created a twenty-first century barrier to Custis’ once breathtaking river view.

In the early 1990’s, with the success of the airport came the need for expansion. A proposal to create more parking spaces by removing Abingdon’s ruins and building another garage was met with an outcry from local preservationists.

At the onset it might have appeared that preservationists were on shaky ground. Only a charred brick wall and a few other remains were all that was left of the plantation after the fire. Yet, what they had in abundance was something they shared with John Custis: a steadfast commitment to this property.

“We have little enough recognizable history in our county. I don’t want to see it paved over,” said Arlington County Board Member Albert C. Eisenberg.**

He was not alone. In 1991, the Virginia General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution opposing the destruction of the Abingdon remains. Seven years later, lawmakers and preservationists were able to claim victory. The rescued ruins of Abingdon were opened to the public in November 1998.

View from beneath one of the many benches on the Abingdon site that faces historical markers.

View from beneath one of the many benches on the Abingdon site that faces historical markers.

History among modern transportation: Along the path that leads to the Abingdon remains it is easy for visitors to catch a glimpse of Metro trains and various aircraft passing by.

History among modern transportation: Along the path that leads to the Abingdon remains it is easy for visitors to catch a glimpse of Metro trains and various aircraft passing by.

Sandwiched by modern transportation, its place in history preserved nevertheless

Parts of the foundations of the original house and the detached kitchen have been restored to make them more visible. While the river view is gone, visitors can walk along the path to the foundations and read historical markers about the plantation. Once at the former home’s hilltop location visitors will find benches and various trees.

View from the bench railing at historic Abingdon site.

View from the bench railing at historic Abingdon site.

A stink bug slowly makes its way along a bean-like seed pod of the Catalpa Tree on the Abingdon site.

A stink bug slowly makes its way along a bean-like seed pod of the Catalpa Tree on the Abingdon site.

Daylilies that surround the site of the Abingdon home site reach for the morning sun.

Daylilies that surround the site of the Abingdon home site reach for the morning sun.

A passerby takes a moment to read one of the many historical markers at the Abingdon site.

A passerby takes a moment to read one of the many historical markers at the Abingdon site.


Archeological finds


But the story of Abingdon doesn’t end with its once grand view. An exhibit highlighting many of the people who called Abingdon home and samples of items they left behind are on display inside the airport.

Some of the items archeologists uncovered at the Abingdon site.

Some of the items archeologists uncovered at the Abingdon site.


The next time you fly, no matter the airport, take a moment to look around. You might just see something historic!


If you go:

  • Abingdon remains can be found at Washington Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia between Parking Lots A and B/C. Park in Garage A for a short walk to the site.
  • Over 37,000 artifacts were uncovered once the site was deemed a historic site and no longer considered an option for a parking garage. A sample of items found at the site, which date back to the earliest English settlements in the area, is on display inside the airport in Terminal A.

*Reference: “Lost Heritage: Early homes that have disappeared from Northern Virginia” by Ruth Lincoln Kaye (1987)

** Reference: “Airport Officials Urged to Preserve Abingdon Ruins” Washington Post, Jan. 30, 1992

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There are 4 comments , add yours!
Ram Ya 1 year, 10 months ago

Love the story and your narrative. Small details you have captured through photography really helps to get a feel for this place. Thank you for the history lesson and taking us with you to this wonderful place.

1 year, 10 months ago Edited
E Bellizzi Replied to Ram Ya 1 year, 10 months ago

Ram, 
Thanks so much for your comments.  So greatly appreciated!  I really did a lot of research about this location because I was so fascinated by the power of preservation. Thrilled that it was selected as an Editor's Choice!! Thank you! - Beth

1 year, 10 months ago Edited
Swarnab Saha 1 year, 12 months ago

Wow the storyline is very interesting

1 year, 12 months ago Edited
E Bellizzi Replied to Swarnab Saha 1 year, 12 months ago

Thanks so much, Sarnav.  It was fun to research.  What was most amazing to me was the number of artifacts they uncovered during the archeological phase.  - Beth

1 year, 12 months ago Edited
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