The Harry W. Gray House in Arlington, VA: A National Historic Landmark
The Gray family has another claim to historic preservation: Harry W. Gray, Selina and Thornton’s son, built a house in Arlington County that is now a National Historic Landmark. Born into slavery, Harry Gray grew up on the Custis-Lee estate, where he did odd jobs around the mansion. Most notably, he built the high masonry wall that surrounds what is now Arlington National Cemetery and thus became a skilled mason. Hi daughter, Martha Gray Gillem, contends that, during the Civil War, Harry was taught to read and write at a fifth grade level by the men of the Northern New York Volunteers. (Interview 2) Having a trade and being literate would serve him very well after emancipation, when he became a leader in Arlington County. For forty years, he worked as a clerk and messenger at the Department of the Interior. He also worked at the Blink West Brickyard and tended his own ten-acre farm. By working three jobs, Harry was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of building an elegant brick townhouse for his wife and children. (“Historic Arlington Days Oct. 9 & 10,” 8) Unlike stone, which was easy to find and inexpensive, fired clay brick was scarce and very expensive, making it a symbol of a family’s prosperity.
Harry modeled his residence after the brick row houses that characterized the Foggy Bottom area of Washington, DC. Martha Gray Gillem said in a 1963 interview that her “Papa” bought bricks from the Blick-West Brickyard when he could afford them, and over many years, bit by bit, he built a two-story row house on his farm. (Arlington County Historic Notebook 1) “Since he built it like the city row houses . . . there are no windows on the sides and the house is narrow and tall,” Gillem explained. For posterity’s sake, Harry carved his name and the date into the last brick before placing it into position near the rear doorway. (Netherton and Ross 85) All told, the house cost about $1,800 to build, more than twice the amount he paid for the land it sat on. When the Gray family finally moved into the house on May 1, 1881, it was the only one of its kind for miles.
The house also boasted an elaborately designed landscape. Besides the house, the ten-acre property included an outhouse, a buggy shed, a barn, a pig house, a well, and a brick patio. Surrounding the house were apple, peach, pear, and cherry orchards, a cornfield, and a grazing field for livestock. Interspersed between all of these were flower gardens that must have splashed vibrant colors across the property. Plat maps even show a croquet field! Given Harry Gray’s exacting nature, such attention to detail is not surprising.
Above all his accomplishments, Harry took greatest pride in his family. He and his wife, Martha, a former slave once owned by former president James Madison, had four children: Thorton, Julia, Sara, and Martha. The Grays taught their offspring the value of determination and hard work. Harry especially fostered the belief that knowledge could open the doors of opportunity that racial inequities had otherwise closed to African Americans. Before he died, Harry saw Thornton become an attorney and all three daughters, teachers.
In his will, Harry Gray attempted to see that his own legacy—the brick townhouse—would be preserved. The document stated that all of his debts should be paid first and that everything that remained should pass to his wife Martha Hoard Gray. In keeping with state law, if she couldn’t pay the bills with the money left in his estate, then the will authorized Martha to sell some of the ten-acre property. When Gray’s widow died, the will stipulated further that his daughter, Martha Gray Gillem, should inherit the family home, all of its furniture, and two-and-a-half acres of land. The remaining seven-and-a-half acres were to be divided equally among the other children, who could do as they pleased with their share of the land. Under no circumstances, however, was the townhouse to be sold outside the family. (Gray Will) In her 1952 will, Martha Gray Gillem left the building to her son, Henry, but in 1975 it passed to her daughter, Cecelia Mitchell. Mitchell and her husband, George, sold it to Commander and Mrs. Richard Storwick in 1979.
By the late 1970s, Harry Gray’s impressive property had changed considerably. The main dwelling had been moved from its original location along what is now Columbia Pike, and the Mitchells had made extensive renovations to it. The once vibrant gardens had given way to the numerous houses of Harry Gray’s children and grandchildren. Other lots had been sold to family friends and some strangers, too. As the neighborhood—called Gray’s Subdivision—changed, concern grew that the brick townhouse might be resold, remodeled, or worse. A movement thus arose to preserve its historic integrity. In 1983, with the Storwicks full support and cooperation, the house became an historic landmark. This designation provides tax benefits to the property’s owners, who have changed several times since 1983, but it requires them to secure permission for any changes from Arlington County’s Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board. With an historic marker standing guard in the front yard, the house is now a permanent symbol of the Gray family’s achievements. Harry Gray would undoubtedly be pleased.