It was in Arlington that the two most famous names in Virginia history—Washington and Lee—became intertwined. George Washington Parke Custis, raised by Martha and George Washington, his grandmother and step-grandfather, built Arlington House (also known as the Custis-Lee Mansion) between 1802 and 1818 on a 1,100-acre estate overlooking the Potomac. After Custis's death, the property went to his daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. In 1831 Mary married Robert E. Lee, a graduate of West Point. For the next 30 years she lived at Arlington House while Lee went wherever the Army sent him, including the superintendency of West Point.
In 1861 Lee was offered command of the Union forces in Washington. It was understood that the first order of business would be a troop movement into nearby Virginia. He declined and resigned from the U.S. Army, deciding that he could never take up arms against his native Virginia. The Lees left Arlington House that spring, never to return. Federal troops
crossed the Potomac not long after that, fortified the estate's ridges, and turned the home into the Army of the Potomac's headquarters. Arlington House and the estate were confiscated in May 1864 when the Lees failed to pay $92 and change in property taxes in person. (General Lee's eldest son sued the U.S. government, and after a 5–4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, was eventually compensated for the land.) Two hundred nearby acres were set aside as a national cemetery in 1864. One thousand soldiers were buried there by the end of that year. Soldiers from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 were reinterred at Arlington as their bodies were discovered in other resting places.
The building's heavy Doric columns and severe pediment make Arlington House one of the area's best examples of Greek Revival architecture. The plantation home was designed by George Hadfield, a young English architect who, for a while, supervised construction of the Capitol. The view of Washington from the front of the house is superb. In 1933 the National Park Service acquired Arlington House and continued the restoration that the War Department had begun, and in 1972 Congress designated the Custis-Lee Mansion as Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. It looks much as it did in the 19th century, and a quick tour takes you past objects once owned by the Custises and the Lees.
In front of Arlington House, next to a flag that flies at half staff whenever there's a funeral in the cemetery, is the flat-top grave of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, designer of Washington, D.C.