Frederick Law Olmsted’s plant-painting at the Capitol

This weekend kick-started WalkingTown DC, Cultural Tourism DC’s ten-day celebration of city exploration in the capital, including over 175 free tours. It coincided with National Museum Day on Saturday and the National Book Festival all weekend, which meant quite the smorgasbord during a quick trip to visit my parents. Before my bus back to NYC on Sunday, my dad and I took the tour called “Frederick Law Olmsted and the US Capitol Grounds,” led by Steve Livengood, the US Capitol Historical Society’s director of public programs.

As I’ve written previously, I’m not a stranger to the Capitol grounds and Frederick Law Olmsted’s legacy there (especially Summerhouse), but the tour provided me with a lot of new information and an improved sense of the grounds’ cohesive design and the narrative of their development. The grounds, Olmsted’s only landscape meant to enhance an already-existing building, exemplify his origination of landscape architecture. As opposed to landscape gardening, this field entails placing a building within the frame of a landscape, or as our guide put it (paraphrasing Olmsted’s friend David Burnham), “painting with plants.”

The tour began with a historical overview of the building Olmsted intended to put on display. The iconic Capitol was designed by William Thornton, who won the commission through a competition in 1793, and his plan for a new Pantheon with wings was later modified by Henry Latrobe and Charles Bullfinch. The construction of the building, the largest stone building in the US at the time, encountered a number of obstacles, including being burned by the British in 1814. By the time it was completed in 1824, the country had tripled in size, necessitating expansion of the building. In 1850, Thomas Walter added new chambers for the House and Senate, setting these additions perpendicular to the original building to avoid overwhelming it. He replaced Bullfinch’s dome with a cast iron one (cast in Brooklyn) in 1863; the wood of the old dome was burned to feed the steam engine used in constructing the new dome. The Capitol’s expansion included enlarging the grounds from 30 to 59 acres; enter Olmsted.

Commissioned in 1874, Olmsted worked on the grounds for 15 years. His design capitalizes on the 21 streets and 47 walkways that feed into the square and strategically guides visitors through the site. He was assisted by Thomas Wisedell, who brought a sense of Chinoiserie to the benches and lampposts and helped with the plans for Summerhouse. Speaking of my favorite place in DC, I learned that, although it may be years before Summerhouse is restored because of budget constraints, the historic structures report was recently completed and restoration plans are indeed in the works — most notably including replacement of the concrete floor with brick, as originally intended.

Here is more of what I saw and learned on the tour :

Olmsted wanted to line the path to the east entrance with tulip trees, which were the tallest species in the area and not usually grown near buildings...

...so these squares at each tree's base can be removed to adapt to the tree's growth.

Original red granite lamp piers

Terra cotta benches designed by Wisedell

Olmsted's wrought-iron streetcar shelter; right across from the building, but I'd never noticed it before

Olmsted designed details down to the tree placards. He never used flowering trees that would distract from the building (though some have since been planted).

The subtle approach to Summerhouse

This little replacement tree was recently planted outside of Summerhouse.

I learned that the hooks on the side of the fountain (one is towards the top left in this photo) once held ladles for the drinking water. The newer drinking fountains (bottom right) might be replaced in the restoration with something more historically appropriate.

"Olmsted's most successful tree," a willow oak

Olmsted added terraces to the west entrance, containing storage spaces and topped with palmettos, because he felt the building otherwise appeared top-heavy.

The tour ended at the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial with this view of the Capitol amid Olmsted's carefully painted plants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *