[Diagram of Capitol Square - East and West Plazas]
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." Olmstead'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. Granite Lamp Piers & Bronze Fountains
Bay of Fundy Granite was used for the massive piers that Olmstead designed to hold bronze, gas-burning light fixtures. Electric sparks from copper wires and a remote battery originally ignited the lamps. The piers were constructed in 1875. Olmstead also designed the large granite basins, within which bronze fountains created rainbows by fine water sprays; the effect was continued at night under gas lights. The bronze was cast in 1875 by Janes, Kirkland, and Company of New York, the same firm that cast most of the ironwork for the Capitol dome. The lamps, piers, fountains and basins were restored during the Capitol Visitor Center construction project.
2. The Olmstead Terrace
Constructed in 1884-1892 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.
Constructed in 1879-1889, the Summerhouse offered visitors a shaded place to rest, admire views of the Capitol, and have a drink of water. Olmstead'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, adds a cooling affect during the summer.