Capitol Grounds Architecture

The area immediately surrounding the Capitol was landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of the landscape architecture profession in America. He was commissioned in 1874 to lay out lawns, walks, roads and walls, and to specify appropriate plantings to complement the great building. One of his guiding principles was the preservation and enhancement of views. Prior to Olmsted's involvement, the Capitol grounds were overgrown with a dense forest of trees that blocked views and detracted from the building's apparent grandeur. Clearing the forest and providing broad open lawns would restore the views that give the building such prominence. As part of his commission Olmsted designed fountains, lamp standards, seat walls, boundary walls, and decorative sidewalks that were colorful and picturesque, providing a deliberate contrast to the white classical Capitol. The designs drew upon Romanesque and Oriental sources that were popular at the time. Examples include the great light piers on the east plaza, made of Bay of Fundy granite with incised floral decorations, and the octagonal fountain below the west terrace, the bowl of which is carried on short Romanesque columns. A premier example of Olmsted's unique approach to picturesque design is the Summerhouse, which he planned with assistance from his associate architect, Thomas Wisedell. It was constructed in 1879-1880 of brick purchased in Philadelphia and was intended to provide visitors with a convenient place to rest, have a drink of water, admire the views, and generally seek refuge from Washington's hot summers. The most ambitious aspect of Olmsted's landscape plan was the idea of replacing the grass-covered berm on the west front with a grand marble terrace. In viewing the Capitol perched as it was on the brow of a hill, Olmsted thought it seemed insufficiently supported: in his eyes it appeared likely to slip off the hill. To correct the appearance of instability Olmsted proposed building a stone-faced terrace that would provide the Capitol with a proper pedestal. The initial proposal for a terrace was contained in Olmsted's overall plan for landscape improvements that was presented to Congress in 1874. Yet this aspect of the project took years to be approved. Only after considerable pressure was exerted by Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont, Chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings, did Congress begin to appropriate funds in 1884. Construction took eight years. About 100 new rooms were provided in the terrace, 26 of which were suitable for committee use.