Last week, I mentioned that I have a number of beloved places in Washington, DC. One of them I would place among my favorite buildings in the world, right up there with Florence’s Duomo, albeit on a very different scale. Because much of its charm derives from the subtlety of its location, I would hesitate to advertise the secret without a disclaimer: read no further if you’d rather discover this paragon of hexagons on your own.
I first stumbled upon Summerhouse during a family trip to DC, a decade or so ago. On a path just northwest of the Capitol building, we began to pass a little whirlpool of shrubbery, then found ourselves within it, down through an arch, one of three rising from woven brick. Inside, the red room was symmetrical (I’ll admit to a weakness for six-sided spaces) with the green of a courtyard garden and, encircled by stone benches and scrolled niches, the quiet energy of a Gothic church. Bound by a waving roof of Spanish mission tile, the structure’s center opened to a sky of trees and a round fountain. Above one set of seats was a mossy grotto behind a wrought-iron grille, a window to a spring-fed planet buried in the Capitol grounds.
Since my family moved to the area several years ago, I have often returned to Summerhouse and finally sought out its story. Constructed from 1879 to 1881, the building was a featured folly in Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscaping plan for the Capitol grounds. His Riverside and Central Parks here in New York are spectacular, of course, and I frequent them. Still, I tend to prefer paler glimpses of grandeur; Summerhouse is, to me, his most elegant work. He intended to fold within this busy site a source of respite and water for visitors and their horses; what he created was a tiny sunken cathedral. According to the Architect of the Capitol, an intended twin on the Capitol’s south side was never built, due to inevitable “congressional objections.” Olmsted also planned that the fountain’s overflow would play a chiming carillon, but the device didn’t function and wasn’t installed. Both of these exclusions are just as well, I think. The space’s solitary sense probably wouldn’t survive being doubled, and its unnatural calm is, in fact, natural—in this red brick heart of DC, minutes from the National Mall, you hear only water and the occasional bird.
Through my many visits, I’ve become a bit possessive of the building. I’ve taken to perching beneath the grotto, like a scrawny blonde gargoyle, reading or watching the spring, and always looking to the doorways when I hear anything that is not water. Sometimes runners appear through one arch, drink from the fountain, and disappear through another. Sometimes families trickle in, staring, photographing, paraphrasing my family’s own discovery; I am often asked if I “know what this place is,” and giving an answer feels like folklore. Despite its name, I tend to prefer it in winter, when snow makes the grotto seem all the more unreal. The building was stabilized in 2009, including repair of its historic walls, and I hope that it will continue to receive attention in the years to come—but not too much. In a city known for its monuments, Summerhouse is my little brick favorite.