General Plan for the Improvement of the U.S. Capitol Grounds
by Frederick Law Olmstead, 1874
Following the extension of the Capitol in the 1850s-1860s, the grounds were enlarged in 1872. In 1874 Congress commissioned Frederick Law Olmstead to design landscape improvements, and he soon produced this drawing, which guided the project over the next two decades. He described the plan as "very simple, with the purpose of its perfect subordination in interest to the architectural design of the Capitol." Olmsted's objective was to provide a dignified "park-like" setting for the Capitol, with groupings of trees and expansive vistas designed to set the Capitol square apart, as an oasis, from the surrounding, developing city. Today the grounds have evolved into an arboretum with hundreds of mature botanical specimens—many of which are rarely seen elsewhere.
1. First Street Boundary Wall, Fountain, and Lanterns
Olmsted did not include boundary walls along the perimeter of the Grounds in his original 1874 landscape design. However, in an effort to separate the Capitol's tranquil setting from the bustling city, Olmsted incorporated multicolored stone walls and piers in the construction to define the edge and entrances to the grounds. Piers of pink granite topped with bronze lanterns
flank the northern and southern carriage entrances, while richly carved sandstone piers flank the sidewalks that extend Maryland and Pennsylvania Avenues to the west terrace. The boundary walls consist of split-face gneiss at the base, a sandstone belt course, and split-face pink granite topped by a carved sandstone cap. The western boundary was started in 1877 and completed in 1882. A bronze drinking fountain and basin house in an ornately carved sandstone niche serves as the principal ornamental feature on the west boundary wall and is located on the main axis of the Capitol and National Mall. The temple-like structure, completed in 1878, is constructed of carved sandstone, bluestone and granite. The original sandstone columns were replaced with granite columns in 1918. The bronze lanterns that sit atop the ornamented piers were originally fueled by gas, which was ignited by electrical sparks from copper wires connected to a remote battery. The gas fuel source was replaced by electricity in the early 1900's.
Constructed in 1879-1880, the Summerhouse offered visitors a shaded place to rest, admire views of the Capitol, and have a drink of water. Olmsted's principal architectural assistant, Thomas Wisedell, was the designer. The Summerhouse is a tribute to the bricklayer's craft—constructed of carved and radial brick, creating elaborate architectural features. Nestled in the hillside, the structure features a "grotto" with running water that, along with the central fountains, add a cooling effect during the summer.
3. The Olmsted Terrace
Constructed in 1884-1982 on the north, west, and south sides of the Capitol, the marble terrace provided a strong visual platform, correcting the illusion that the massive building was about to slide down Capitol Hill. It also added much-needed space for storage, shops, and committee rooms.
Average walking time: 8 to 10 minutes
Monday - Saturday
8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
For more information visit:
Locate below ground level
Official Business and Appointments
House and Senate Galleries
· Food or beverages of any kind, including fruit and unopened packaged food.
· Liquid, including water
· Any bag larger than 18" wide x 14" high x 8.5" deep
· Aerosol containers and non-aerosol spray, mace and pepper spray
· Guns, replica guns, electric stun guns, ammunition, martial arts weapons or devices, and fireworks
· Any pointed object (e.g. knitting needles and letter openers) and knives of any size (pens and pencils are permitted)
· Razors and box cutters