Nell Broyhill and the War Memorial at Bon Air Park (No Concrete Jeeps for Arlington)

Nine months before the end of the Second World War, a Time Magazine article headlined “No Concrete Jeeps” called attention to the “revolt against traditional war memorials” occurring in communities across America. Citing examples of parks, civic buildings, youth centers and scholarships dedicated to local veterans in cities and towns coast to coast, Time was crediting a movement dating back to the First World War. The term most frequently used by proponents of non-traditional memorials was “living memorials,” with “living” carrying the dual meaning of serving the needs of the community and of honoring all those who served, and not only those who lost their lives. A 1945 survey by American City Magazine of hundreds of communities across the country found that more than eighty per cent were planning living memorials, with only fourteen opting for “honor rolls, plaques, and stone monuments.” Among the strongest proponents of living memorials were women; a poll published in February, J 945 by Woman’s Home Companion indicated that ninety-two percent of its readers preferred living memorials

One Arlington County subscriber to Woman’s Home Companion was especially taken with the idea of a living memorial dedicated to Arlingtonians serving their country in war. Nell Broyhill, born Nellie Magdalene Brewer in the Blue Ridge mountain town of Roaring River, North Carolina in 1897, became the initiator and driving force behind the creation of Arlington’s first public garden and earliest World War II memorial. Her upbringing in Appalachia had instilled strong religious beliefs, a love of nature and a marked independent streak. In 1917 she married Marvin Talmadge Broyhill, nine years her senior, and moved to Hopewell, Virginia where Marvin had taken advantage of a World War !-driven building boom to “make money fast” in the real estate business with an older brother. Over the next twenty years Nell, in addition to playing an active role in the family real estate business, gave birth to five children, grew prizewinning roses, and was elected president of the Hopewell Gardening Club.

The depression undermined the family’s financial security, howeve1 and in 1937 the Broyhills moved to Arlington. While Marvin initially sc up a business office in Front Royal and only saw his wife and children on weekends, Nell took full charge of the business end in the Washington area. Years later she was to tell a Congressional committee “the first homes ever built in the Washington area I built personally, without the aid of my husband or any member of my family.” In a 1940 memoir, her husband notes that “she is a good business woman” and her skills became sufficiently appreciated outside the confines of the family for her to be asked to represent the Gulf Oil Corporation in business before the county board in the post-war years.

It was not long after the United States entered the Second World War that the first calls for the establishment of memorial gardens were made. On Memorial Day in 1942 the Governor of Tennessee, who also chaired the National Advisory Garden Committee, called for memorial gardens in the vicinity of public buildings and monuments. The following year the American Association of Nurserymen established a committee to formulate a program to assist interested communities in establishing memorial gardens. One of the earliest such gardens, a memorial rose garden, was dedicated on June 4, 1944 in Kansas City, with the mayor in attendance.

It is not known precisely when Nell Broyhill decided to launch a campaign for a “living memorial” rose garden in Arlington. What is clear is that by February 1, 1944, the date of the founding of the Arlington Rose Garden Foundation, she had already spent weeks laying the groundwork for the establishment of a memorial rose garden in Arlington. Unfortunately, no minutes of the founding meeting at Rixey Mansion, the handsome building now housing the offices of the president of Marymount University, have survived. However, the account written seven years later by a participant in the meeting, Foundation Recording Secretary Hilda Strother, supplemented by articles in the Arlington Sun (one of whose employees was a charter member of the Foundation) permits us to conclude with reasonable confidence that the twelve participants, all of whom were women active in church and women’s organizations, unanimously supported a concept and plan of action developed by Mrs. Broyhill, who was elected chairman.

Arlington Hospital in 1944

Mrs. Broyhill’s plan encompassed the following elements:

  • Location: The new Arlington Hospital, not yet opened when the meeting was held, would be the site of the garden.
  • Dedication: The entire memorial garden would be dedicated to Arlingtonians who served their country in the armed services and merchant marine during the war. Each rose would honor a specific individual. A special section would be maintained with “gold star” roses to memorialize those who lost their lives. A bronze plaque would list the names of all those honored.
  • Funding and maintenance: Working through churches and civic groups, the foundation would solicit one dollar donations from families, friends and organizations wishing to dedicate a rose bush to a specific individual. Contributions were expected to cover purchase of plants, fertilizer and other supplies and the first year’s maintenance cost. Beyond the first year the hospital would provide maintenance.

The new foundation, chaired by Mrs. Broyhill, quickly obtained the “honorary sponsorship” of county board member Elizabeth Magruder, County Manager Frank Hanrahan, and representatives of the Board of Trade and the Chamber of Commerce. While this carried no promise of direct financial help, it served to reassure the community that the campaign for a memorial rose garden was deemed solid and worthy of support.

The initial response of the community was encouraging, especially once donations organized by churches began to arrive in May, 1944.8 By the end of November, 1944 the foundation had received contributions from more than 750 individuals, 40 small businesses and 17 clubs and civic associations to honor 841 Arlingtonians involved in the war effort. Especially striking was the response of Arlington’s black community, which responded with exceptional enthusiasm. Although black men and women constituted only about five per cent of Arlingtonians serving in WWII, about one quarter of the contributions to the rose garden came from the membership of Arlington’s black churches.

Time of Troubles

Nell and Marvin Broyhill (seated) and their family

If the prospects for the establishment of a memorial rose garden at Arlington Hospital seemed encouraging as 1944 drew to a close, events soon began to move in a more negative direction. The first blow affected Mrs. Broyhill personally. On December 16, 1944, the second day of the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge, Captain Joel Broyhill, Nell’s second son, was captured and spent most of the remainder of the war in German prison camps, before escaping and rejoining advancing American forces near the end of the war. While Nell was still facing uncertainty over her son’s fate, the first serious setback to the early realization of her memorial garden plans occurred when the Arlington County Civic Federation, which on February 6, 1945 had assumed the coordination of efforts to establish a war memorial in Arlington, declined to support the Rose Garden Foundation’s request for backing for the placement in the garden of a memorial bearing the names of Arlingtonians serving in WWII. Instead the federation established an Arlington War Memorial Association which sought to discourage any memorial initiatives other than its own adopted goal of collecting $400,000 to build a community center for Arlington. That goal was never achieved. In fact the association raised barely enough money to cover the cost of the fundraising campaign, but the dampening effect on the rose garden initiative was obvious.

There was bad news as well on the Arlington Hospital front. Within months of its March 1944 opening it had become clear that the hospital’s financial situation was dire and its ability to fulfill its commitment to the Rose Garden Foundation to maintain the garden after the first year was in doubt. Moreover, the foundation’s own fundraising activities had ground to a halt, with only a single one-dollar contribution received in the first six months of 1945. So when Lillian Wright Smith, the garden consultant at George Washington University, sought to cheer the foundation members at their July meeting by praising the “idealism” of their “pioneering” effort, many in the audience probably wondered whether idealism would be enough, especially since Smith also stressed that the garden could not be the work only of a “small group of individuals,” but needed to be a “community-wide effort.” But 1945 was not to be the year in which the community stepped forward-not for the Rose Garden, not for the War Memorial Association and not for Arlington Hospital”

The Tide Turns

The first positive change in the Memorial Garden’s prospects since mid-1944 became known in the spring of 1946 when the acting county manager revealed that an October 1943 decision of the Arlington County Board in which the county agreed to landscape the Arlington Hospital grounds “in return for the Hospital Association contributing land adjacent to the hospital for a health center” had been funded and that work would begin in the summer. Although the agreement predated the establishment of the rose garden, its inclusion in the work of the county was prepared to do became evident when one of its first landscaping contracts was awarded by the county to R.A. Carston in December 1946 for construction of steps “in connection with the grading of the rose garden.” The amount of the contract $2,250, was nearly twice the amount the Rose Garden Foundation had been able to collect since its inception.  Most importantly, the county’s arrangement with Arlington Hospital provided a way around the Dillon Rule, which county attorneys determined prevented any county assistance to the Rose Garden Foundation’s rival,, the Arlington War Memorial Association.  The viability of the site on the hospital grounds was now assured and in 11947 the president of the Arlington Hospital Gilbert H. Hall, planted the first rose bush as what is now a visitors’ parking garage on the north side of the main building of the hospital.  An official opening was deferred until the garden was in a presentable state.  Few in 1947 imagined that four more years would pass before the Arlington Memorial Rose Garden would be dedicated.

The Hospital Years

1948 was a critical year for the future of the Arlington Rose Garden Foundation and the memorial garden.  In July the same month in which an editorial in Arlington’s Sun newspaper termed the Arlington Hospital’s latest fund drive an “utter failure” and concluded that the people of Arlington “just don’t car,” Nell Broyhill moved her promotional efforts outside the Arlington community and joined the area’s pre-eminent rose organization, the Potomac Rose Society (PRS).  By September the PRS had entered discussions with Mrs. Broyhill regarding the possible use of the Arlington Memorial Rose Garden as a test garden for roses.  An agreement to that effect was formalized in November.  The agreement carried practical advantages in the form of assistance with the procurement and planting of rose varieties.  More broadly, it moved the garden beyond the category of a purely local facility and gave it a regional significance.  In less than three years that significance would be expanded to the national level when the American Rose Society selected the Arlington Memorial Rose Garden as one of ninety gardens across the country to be authorized to demonstrate new varieties of roses in the “Beautify America with Roses” program.

Madame Chiang Kai Shek Rose

Mrs. Broyhill even extended her efforts internationally and succeeded in obtaining contributions to the garden from the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg and Madame Chaing Kai-shek of China.  But a planned formal opening of the garden on on October 3, 1948 had to be postponed as did another announced opening scheduled for Memorial Day of the following year.  More ominously, persistent problems of drainage of the site and inadequate care caused the Potomac Rose Society in August 1949 to withdraw its support until the drainage issues had been resolved. Since this did not occur until October of the following year, when Arlington County agreed to carry out a major drainage project at the site, yet another announced Memorial Day opening (1950) had to be postponed, to the foundation’s embarrassment.  This meant that when the formal dedication of the Arlington Memorial Rose Garden finally occurred on September 30, 1951 the United States was once again engaged in a major war.

The dedication ceremony, attended by an estimated 1,000 citizens, was notable for its spiritual character, perhaps reflecting both Mrs. Broyhill’s piety and the key role played by churches in gathering contributions from the faithful. Of the twelve events on the program, six had religious content. They included the singing by a combined choir of Arlington churches of the hymn “God of Our Fathers” and Kipling’s “Recessional.” The latter’s passage “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet/Lest we forget-lest we forget” is cited on the bronze plaque presented by the Chamber of Commerce at the dedication ceremony and still located near the center of the rose garden. The US Army Band and Air Force Glee Club and Drum and Bugle Corps contributed patriotic elements. For the future of the garden the key moment occurred when County Manager A.T. Lundberg accepted responsibility for the continued maintenance of “this beautiful shrine with pleasure and gratitude on behalf of the people of Arlington.”

In fact, the need for the foundation’s continued involvement in the operation of the garden was evident, since the county staff knew little about rose care and was glad to defer to Leslie V. Perry, a member of the Potomac Rose Society board, who had taken a particular interest in the garden. Although be served only briefly as president of the Arlington Rose Garden Foundation in the rnid-1950s, Perry was for twenty years the de facto “Chairman” of the Memorial Rose Garden, with a mandate from the county to select plants and ensure their proper care by acting as the unpaid supervisor of the county gardeners. He also organized the annual pruning demonstrations and rose care clinics which to this day attract area rose growers to the garden. Among the early improvements arranged by Perry with the help of the county Engineering Department was the introduction in June 1953 of a piped water supply to provide irrigation in dry periods. Perry, assisted by William Beyer, a close associate in the Potomac Rose Society, continued to be actively involved with the garden until the late 1970s.16 In the first years following the official dedication of the rose garden, Mrs. Broyhill, despite increasingly heavy involvement in other activities, continued to actively promote and raise funds for the Memorial Garden and to speak at Memorial Day ceremonies (something which Perry never did). A fashion show benefit for the garden at her home in 1952 and other social events in succeeding years continued to keep Mrs. Broyhill in the public eye even as she turned over the running of the rose garden and the foundation to others. In 1953 she was honored as Arlington’s “Professional Woman of the Year.” The following year she founded and became president of the Federal Association for Epilepsy, applying her formidable energies to establishing the National Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Leesburg (now Graydon Manor, a nationally recognized center for the treatment of emotionally disturbed children). At the beginning of 1955 she suffered the loss of one of her closest collaborators when Hilda Strother. whose history of the Rose Garden Foundation is cited above, died at only fifty-one years of age. In 1960 Nell moved with her husband to Daytona Beach, Florida, where he was establishing a new real estate development enterprise, temporarily interrupting her activities in Arlington.

The Bon Air Years

Joel Broyhill

On May 23, 1961 Kenneth Bergeron, president of the Arlington Rose Garden Foundation, sent a letter to Nell Broyhill’s son, Joel, a member of the US Congress since 1952, asking his intervention to help reverse a county decision to cut the budget for maintenance of the rose garden by fifty per cent. Bergeron argued that the level of support proposed by the county would make the roses “diseased, unsightly and unproductive” and recalled that the garden “is a monument and a memorial to the veterans of World War ll and …is as valuable in its way as are libraries and playgrounds.” In his response, Broyhill expressed the hope that “it will be possible to restore the necessary funds to provide the proper care for the Rose Garden” but added that “this is entirely within the jurisdiction of Arlington County officials.” Those officials had already considerably reduced the level of county support for the garden, which bad peaked in 1958. Against the background of a declining county commitment to the hospital site, Leslie Perry informed the Potomac Rose Society in October, 1961 that because the garden at the hospital was full, he had requested and received permission from the county to plant the “overflow” in Bon Air Park in west Arlington.

Bon Air Park had originated as a 13.4 acre site purchased from L.R. Eakin for $24,654 by the Arlington County Department of Recreation in its first year of operation (July 1, 1948-June 30, 1949). The recreation department intended to develop Bon Air as an active recreation facility, with five basketball courts, a shuffleboard court and similar amenities. After repeated rejections of these plans in the 1950s by the county manager and board, Perry’s request must have seemed a welcome alternative use for an attractive plot of land adjacent to Four Mile Run. It soon became clear that the county’s agreement to maintain a rose garden at the Bon Air site entailed the ending of its support for the Memorial Garden at the hospital site. But another year elapsed before the county officially informed the foundation that it would cease supporting the original garden after a short transition period. The foundation made a last-ditch effort in early 1963 to convince the county board to maintain a “two garden” policy. When that failed, the foundation decided that it could not maintain the Memorial Garden at the hospital site without county support and began making plans to transfer the plaques and other historic artifacts to the new garden at Bon Air Park.

The transfer of the Memorial Garden to its new site was completed in early 1964. The same year marked an important turning point for the Arlington Rose Garden Foundation. Beginning about the time of Mrs. Broyhill’s move to Florida, the foundation suffered a large drop in membership, from sixty-one members in 1960 to only thirty-four in 1964. With the departure of many of those who had struggled alongside Nell Broyhill to create a “living memorial,” the remaining members and most who would be joining in future years were primarily interested in growing better roses (being a “club of rose growers” as a document prepared for Leslie Perry in 1965 stated) rather than preserving the memorial and historic aspects of the garden. Sensing the shift despite her distance and ill health, Mrs. Broyhill wrote from Florida to a friend in the foundation on February 6, 1964, “Remember always that you are registered in the United States Library of Records as a memorial group. You are much more important than an ordinary garden club.” Despite such entreaties, the members voted a new constitution that dropped the word “Garden” from the foundation’s name, becoming simply the Arlington Rose Foundation.

Soon after, an effort was made at the initiative of Leslie Perry, who may have been irked at the sometimes critical tone of Mrs. Broyhill’s letters from Florida to her friends in the foundation, to write Mrs. Broyhill out of the history of the newly renamed organization. A document dated October 28, 1965 and entitled “A Short Synopsis of the Arlington Rose Foundation” credits the creation of the foundation and the Memorial Rose Garden to a collective-a “Committee” of women operating without a named protagonist. The other factual mistakes in the brief and poorly researched document should have ensured that it quickly dropped from sight. Unfortunately, its brevity made it attractive to county officials and it, rather than Strother’s more reliable account, has since been the basis of county publications about the rose garden, contributing to the fact that Nell Broyhill’s central role as the founder of the garden has been forgotten by many.

When she returned to Arlington with her ailing husband (who died in 1966), Mrs. Broyhill, despite continuing health problems, threw herself once more with energy and determination into rose garden activities. She was aided by the interest of family friend and county board member Ned Thomas, whose father, Judge Homer Thomas, bad also been a supporter of the Memorial Garden. Her role as founder belatedly recognized by the dedication of a bench in her honor in 1 968, she organized the last major memorial event held at the rose garden in 1969 in honor of Arlingtonians killed in Vietnam. Eight years later, and thirty-three years after laying the groundwork for Arlington’s first World War II memorial, Nell died at the location she had selected for it: Arlington Hospital. Ironically, the woman who, more than anyone else, fought to create and keep the garden as a living memorial, is not herself among those remembered there, since the plaque in her honor fell off, or, more likely, was vandalized in the 1970s and has never been replaced.

While no one has yet stepped in to replace Mrs. Broyhill as chief preserver of the garden’s historical/memorial mission, the same fortunately cannot be said of the horticultural/aesthetic aspect-the garden as public amenity and educational resource. When Leslie Perry stepped down as “Chairman” in the late 1970s (he died in 1982) the title was already outdated. Since 1979, rose care at the garden has been in the hands of an experienced and capable head gardener, Mark Askin, whose knowledge obviates the need for the oversight that Perry had previously provided. During Askin’s tenure the county has provided an excellent irrigation system and other equipment that has raised the level of care and permitted the garden to receive a number of awards. Perry’s successors from the Arlington Rose Foundation, William Knutsen, Benjamin Holmes, and Joseph Dysart (the current incumbent), carry the more modest title of “Adviser.” They act as Liaison with the American Rose Society on all matters relating to selection of rose varieties and standards of care and organize the pruning demonstrations and other educational programs at the site. On occasion they have enhanced the memorial aspect of the garden, as when Dysart selected “Veteran’s Honor” roses for the garden’s central area.

Courtesy, the Arlington Rose Foundation,

Beyond the designated advisers, a few committed rosarians have made notable individual contributions. The most distinguished of these was by Charles E. Bell Jr., a retired World Bank official, whose work hybridizing miniature roses was nationally recognized. The miniature rose area that Bell developed in the Bon Air Garden was among its prime attractions. Removed by the county in 2001, the miniature rose collection is expected to be restored to the garden as part of an “improvement project” being carried out in the spring and summer of 2002.

The summary of this project posted on the county’s website states that “the improvements will heighten awareness of the garden as a memorial dedicated to the veterans of World War II. The entry circle will contain interpretive signage exploring the history of the garden in this context. A small memorial garden will be created at the site of the existing monument.”  To the extent the admirable goal of heightening awareness of the rose garden as a memorial is achieved, it will bring to the community’s attention the achievement of the woman whose vision and determination brought the Arlington Memorial Rose Garden into being.

This article was written by Bob Rackmales and was published in the 2002 edition of the Arlington Historical Magazine.  Bob Rackmales was born in Baltimore in 1937. He earned degrees in history from Johns Hopkins and Indiana Universities and graduated from the National War College at Fort McNair. From 1963 to 1995 he was a career member of the US Foreign Service, retiring with the rank of Minister-Counselor. He and his wife Mary lived in Arlington since 1966 and since 1972 their home has been within four blocks of the Bon Air Memorial Rose Garden.