The mansion, which was intended as a living memorial to George Washington, was owned and constructed by the first president's adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, son of John Parke Custis who himself was a child of Martha Washington by her first marriage and a ward of George Washington. Arlington won out as a name over Mount Washington. Custis hired George Hadfield, an English architect who came to Washington in 1785 to help construct the U.S. Capitol, to design his estate. The north wing was the first structure completed in 1802. It was in this building that Custis made his home, with a significant portion of it used to store George Washington memorabilia that Custis was acquiring with regularity. Among the items purchased and stored in the north wing were portraits, Washington's personal papers and clothes, and the command tent which the president had used at Yorktown.
Robert E. Lee's wife inherited the house from her father, George Washington Parke Custis and Lee is said to have loved the property--not hard to understand when you are there because it has a gorgeous view of the Potomac River, and the modern sites of the Congress and various memorials.
When Lee decided to join the Confederate forces, he must have known that he would be giving up his wife's ancestral home. Union troops would have to take control of Arlington, where the heights offered a perfect platform for artillery—key to the defense or subjugation of the capital. Once the war began, Arlington was easily won, but it was harder to seize it legally. The federal government was still wrestling the Lee family for control of the property in 1882, by which time it had been transformed into Arlington National Cemetery, the nation's most hallowed ground.