George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, VA

George Washington’s tomb, at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The tomb in 2018:

George Washington died on December 14, 1799, here on his Mount Vernon estate. Four days later, his body was interred in the Washington family crypt, which was located just down the hill from his mansion, on the banks of the Potomac River. This was intended to be only a temporary tomb for Washington, as there were several different plans for his final resting place. One proposal was to bury him underneath the Capitol rotunda, and a crypt was even constructed for this purpose. However, a different plan called for Washington to be reinterred in a new, larger tomb at Mount Vernon.

It would ultimately take more than three decades for this question to be resolved, and it was only addressed after a rather bizarre act of vandalism. In 1830, a gardener, who had been recently fired from his job at Mount Vernon, decided to respond by stealing George Washington’s skull. He broke into the tomb, which was filled with the remains of at least 20 members of the family, but he ended up taking the wrong skull. Washington’s body was left undisturbed, and the perpetrator was quickly caught, but the incident highlighted the need for a new tomb that was more fitting for the father of his country

The result was this brick tomb, as shown in these two photos. It was completed in 1831, and George and Martha Washington’s remains were subsequently moved here, along with the remains of the other family members. Then, in 1837, he was placed in a marble sarcophagus, which can be seen just beyond the right side of the gate. In the process, his coffin was opened for the only time, perhaps in order to verify that his head was still in place, and observers noted that his body had been well-preserved over the intervening 38 years.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, the tomb had been joined by two obelisks at the front. The one on the right memorializes George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, who had inherited Mount Vernon upon Martha Washington’s death in 1802. He was also an associate justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, serving from 1798 until his death in 1829. The other obelisk is for John Augustine Washington II and his son, John Augustine Washington III. The elder John was a nephew of Bushrod Washington, and inherited Mount Vernon from him. The younger John later inherited the estate from his father, and he was the last member of the Washington family to own it before selling it to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1858.

Today, almost nothing has changed in this scene in nearly 120 years since the first photo was taken. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association continues to own the property, which includes the mansion, its many outbuildings, the surrounding grounds, and the tomb. The estate was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960, exactly a hundred years after it opened to the public as a museum, and today it remains a popular tourist attraction, with around one million visitors each year.

Arlington House, Arlington, Virginia

The Arlington House in Arlington National Cemetery, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The house in 2018:

This house was built over a period of 15 years between 1803 and 1818, and it was originally the home of George Washington Parke Custis. Born in 1781, Custis was the grandson of Martha Washington, from her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis. His father, John Parke “Jacky” Custis, had died when George Washington Parke Custis was only a few months old, and George and Martha subsequently raised him as their adopted son. George Washington died in 1799, and Martha in 1802, leaving Custis a significant inheritance. Also in 1802, Custis turned 21, thus inheriting a fortune in money and land from his late father.

Among his father’s land holdings was an 1,100-acre estate on the Potomac River, overlooking the newly-established national capital of Washington. He named the property Arlington, and soon began construction on a mansion, which would become known as Arlington House. For the design, he hired George Hadfield, a noted architect who was responsible for several important buildings in Washington. The exterior of the house featured a very early example of Greek Revival architecture, with its most distinctive feature being the eight large columns here on the front portico. Although it appears to be built of sandstone and marble, the exterior is actually stucco-covered brick, which was intended to give it the appearance of stone.

The War of 1812 delayed construction of the house, but it was completed in 1818. Custis and his wife, Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis, would go on to live here for the rest of their lives, until her death in 1853 and his in 1857. They had four children, although only one, Mary Anna Randolph Curtis, lived to adulthood. In 1831, at the age of 23, she married 24-year-old army officer Robert E. Lee, in a ceremony that was held here at Arlington House. It would be their home for the next 30 years, during which time Lee steadily rose in rank from a lieutenant to a colonel in the United States Army. He served in the Mexican-American War, and more than a decade later he led the group of soldiers that suppressed John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

Lee’s wife Mary inherited Arlington House after her father’s death in 1857, but the family did not get to enjoy the property for much longer. On April 16, 1861, four days after the attack on Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee command of the main Union army. However, Virginia declared its secession the following day, and Lee declined the offer. Instead, he resigned his commission in the the United States Army and joined the Confederate States Army, where he would command the Army of Northern Virginia for most of the war.

In the meantime, Arlington House quickly became a target for Union forces who were defending Washington. Because of its prominent location overlooking the city, it was imperative that it not fall into Confederate hands. The house was seized on May 24, 1861, and it subsequently became the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac. Despite this occupation, though, the Lee family formally continued to own the house until 1864, when it was taken by the federal government for nonpayment of taxes.

Later in 1864, with the Union needing more space to bury soldiers killed in the war, the property became Arlington National Cemetery. Part of the intention behind this move was to forever deprive Lee of the use of the estate, and to that end many of the early burials were right near the house. The first interment occurred on May 13, and thousands more would follow in the remaining 11 months of the war. These included the remains of 2,111 unidentified Union and Confederate soldiers, whose remains were collected from various battlefields. They were buried in a vault behind and to the left of the house, and the spot is marked by the Civil War Unknowns Monument.

Following the war, neither Robert E. Lee nor Mary Lee ever attempted to reclaim the title of the estate, although their oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, successfully sued for its return. However, not interested in living in the middle of a cemetery, he then sold the property back to the federal government in 1883 for $150,000. In the ensuing years, though, the government directed most of its attention to the cemetery itself, with little concern for the mansion. By the time the first photo was taken around 1900, the house was largely unused, and the immediate grounds had been heavily altered from their prewar appearance.

The mansion was finally restored in the late 1920s, although the original focus was on the Custis family, as opposed to the Lees. However, in 1955 the house was renamed the Custis-Lee Mansion, and then in 1972 it became Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial, thus placing a greater emphasis on Lee’s connection to the house. It has remained in use as a museum since then, although it was closed for renovations in early 2018, a few months before the first photo was taken. As part of this project, the house will be restored to its 1860 appearance, and the slave quarters and surrounding grounds will also be restored. The work will cost an estimated $12.35 million, and it is scheduled to be completed in January 2020.

Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool, Washington, DC (3)

The view of the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, seen from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 20, 1925. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Photo Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

These photos show nearly the same view as the ones in the previous post, but they were taken from the opposite side of the Lincoln Memorial steps. As discussed in that post, very little has changed in this scene in nearly a century since the first photo was taken. Both the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument remain iconic features of Washington, along with the Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Castle further in the distance. However, there have been a few changes on the left side of the Reflecting Pool, where the Main Navy and Munitions Buildings once stood. Intended to be only temporary, these buildings were constructed as military offices during World War I, but they remained here until 1970, when they were finally demolished to create Constitution Gardens on the site.

Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool, Washington, DC (2)

The view of the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, seen from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 20, 1925. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Photo Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

These photos show the view from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, facing toward the Reflecting Pool,with the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol further in the distance. This angle is very similar to the photos in a previous post, but the first photo here was taken almost 20 years before the one in that post, and it gives a wider view of the surrounding area. Some of the other landmarks visible in the first photo include the Old Post Office in the distant center, the National Museum of Natural History to the left of the Washington Monument, and the Smithsonian Institution Building to the right of the monument. Closer to the foreground, beyond the trees to the left of the Reflecting Pool, are the Main Navy and Munitions Buildings, a group of temporary buildings that were constructed during World War I.

Today, nearly a century after the first photo was taken, remarkably little has changed in this scene. The trees around the Reflecting Pool are taller now, obscuring most of the Washington skyline, but the Old Post Office is still there, as is the Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Building. Only the temporary World War I buildings are gone, having been demolished in 1970 and replaced by the Constitution Gardens. The Reflecting Pool has seen a few minor changes, including the addition of paved walkways along the perimeter in 2012. Otherwise, though, the only significant addition to this scene is the World War II Memorial. It was dedicated in 2004 on the former site of the Rainbow Pool, and it can be seen on the far end of the Reflecting Pool in the 2018 photo.

Abraham Lincoln Statue, Washington, DC

The statue of Abraham Lincoln inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, around 1921-1922. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Photo Company Collection.

The statue in 2018:

The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922,and over the years it has become one of the most recognizable features of Washington, DC. The monument is designed like a Greek temple, and on the interior is a 30-foot-tall marble statue of Lincoln, who is seated and facing east toward the Washington Monument and the United States Capitol. It was designed by prominent sculptor Daniel Chester French, who had, nearly a half century earlier, designed the iconic Minute Man statue in Concord, Massachusetts. French would go on to create other important sculptures before his death in 1931, but this Abraham Lincoln statue would prove to be his magnum opus.

The first photo apparently shows a couple of workers putting the finishing touches on the statue, and it would have been taken sometime shortly before the memorial’s dedication. Nearly a century later, nothing of substance has changed in this scene. The statue is still here, as is the inscription above it, which was written by Royal Cortissoz. Elsewhere inside the memorial are inscriptions of Lincoln’s two most famous speeches: the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address. As the 2018 photo shows, the Lincoln Memorial remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, drawing more than seven million visitors each year.

Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool, Washington, DC

The view of the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, seen from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in November 1943. Image taken by Esther Bubley, courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The first photo was taken in 1943 by Esther Bubley, a noted photographer who was employed by the Office of War Information. Only 22 years old at the time, she spent much of 1943 documenting civilian life on the home front, particularly here in the Washington area. Most of the subjects in her photographs were people, but this is one of the few cityscape photographs in her collection, showing one of Washington’s most iconic views in the midst of World War II. Taken from essentially the same spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. would give his “I Have a Dream” speech 20 years later, the first photo shows the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, with the Washington Monument beyond it in the center of the scene.

This view is easily recognizable today, but upon close examination there were some differences in 1943. On the left side of the scene were the Main Navy and Munitions Buildings, a group of temporary military buildings that were constructed during World War I. They can be seen in a 1922 photo from a previous post, and they were still in use during World War II, and by this point they had been joined by newer temporary buildings, hidden from view on the right side of the scene. These buildings were constructed in order to accommodate the large numbers of government employees needed for the war effort, and the two complexes were joined by pedestrian bridges that spanned the Reflecting Pool, as seen in the first photo.

The bridges were removed soon after the end of the war, but the “temporary” buildings would remain here for several more decades. The ones on the right were finally demolished in 1964, and the ones on the left in 1970. Both sides of the Reflecting Pool became open parkland, with the left side being developed as Constitution Gardens. Otherwise, this scene has not significantly changed in the 76 years since the first photo was taken, and the only noteworthy addition is the World War II Memorial, located at the far end of the Reflecting Pool. This memorial was dedicated in 2004, on what had previously been the site of the Rainbow Pool, and it honors the Americans who were serving in the war around the same time that the first photo was taken.