War and the Roses

Discover one little acre that's packed with 2,600 rose bushes and lots of wartime history.

Take a quick turn off Wilson Boulevard onto North Lexington Street and you’re in another world. Carpenter bees hover lazily around some 2,600 rose bushes, and shouts of glee echo from a nearby playground. The serenity of this sun-soaked Friday evening isn’t lost on Jeanne Broyhill. But at the moment, she’s on a mission.

“I remember seeing it,” says Broyhill, 61, peering across 150 types of roses, from yellow miniatures dubbed “Sun Sprinkles” to the fuchsia blossoms of a prize-winning varietal named after Dick Clark. Finally, her eye settles on a solitary marble bench in the one-acre garden’s northwest corner. She reads a plaque set on the seat. “That’s it! Nellie M. Broyhill! That’s really special.”

Nellie was Jeanne’s grandmother. She’s also the reason Bon Air Memorial Rose Garden exists.

A mother of five, Nellie, and her husband, Marvin Broyhill (whose real estate company would go on to develop much of postwar Arlington), moved to the area in 1937. Seven years later, as World War II drew to a close, a Nov. 27 Time magazine article noted that cities across America were honoring their troops with living memorials.

Nellie, an avid gardener whose own yard on North Vermont Street boasted dozens of rose bushes, was already cultivating one such effort. That February, she had created the Arlington Rose Garden Foundation, with the purpose of planting a memorial garden at the forthcoming Arlington Hospital (today’s Virginia Hospital Center). The landmark would honor local war veterans, including her son, Joel, who would go on to become a Virginia congressman.

It was a complicated endeavor, hampered by funding and construction delays, but Nellie was undaunted. She enlisted donations from sources ranging from various local churches to the grand duchess of Luxembourg and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. The garden debuted in 1951 and relocated to its current spot in 1964, when a hospital expansion claimed its original grounds.

“What she accomplished was unheard of [at the time],” says Pam Powers, president of the Arlington Rose Foundation, which maintains the garden today. “She was playing in a man’s world.”

Nellie’s bench—dedicated in 1968, before her death in 1977—sits west of a stone plaque honoring the 841 Arlingtonians who were involved in the war effort. It is a fine spot for people-watching.  And a good place to stop and smell the roses.

Bon Air Memorial Rose Garden is located at 850 North Lexington St., Arlington. 703-228-6521. Roses are expected to bloom through mid-October. Park hours are from sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.

Categories: Local History
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