Capitol Grounds

The Capitol Grounds is a park-like setting for the nation's U.S. Capitol Building, offering a picturesque counterpoint to the building's formal architecture.

The Capitol Grounds were considered by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who was commissioned to plan and design the U.S. Capitol Building’s grounds, to be just as important as the pristine, grand building itself. According to Olmsted, who is most famous for his work on New York City’s Central Park (which he designed with Calvert Vaux), the grounds were meant to complement the building. The project began in 1874, and would encompass the addition of several structures throughout the park’s picturesque landscape. This created an image that tied the land surrounding the capitol together, but also created an inviting environment that is still visited and admired many decades later. The project would be completed almost two decades after it started, in 1892. 

Several different, smaller projects were taken on in order to create the landscape that Olmsted desired, all of which can still be seen today, and were created so that the Capitol Grounds would be both attractive but not distracting in nature. The inclusion of shaded walks and a few structures, like the Summerhouse, that offer rest and relaxation for those who visit made the grounds even more inviting to visitors. 

Olmsted’s designs included the West Terraces and Steps, which were built from 1874 to 1875, the Summerhouse (or Spring Grotto), completed in 1880, the Herdic Stations (or the Horse Trolley Waiting Stands), constructed in 1876, and the East Front Fountains (which later would be turned into planters), which were built in 1877. The last addition would be the Ventilation Towers, which were designed in 1873, but were not constructed until 1888. 

One of the most unique portions of the Capitol Grounds, as designed by Olmsted, is the Summerhouse. Found on the West Front Lawn near the Senate side of the Capitol, this structure was made with the public and visiting population in mind. It was designed both as shelter and as decoration, as it was built with red brick in geometric patterning – on purpose to blend in with the landscape. It was originally built with a fountain inside of it that piped water from a spring (hence the alternate name “Spring Grotto”), and stone benches lined the inside, truly becoming a peaceful resting place for people as they ventured the grounds. While another Summerhouse would be planned and drawn up for the House side of the Capitol’s extensive campus, the concept would be scrapped and never constructed, due to many polarizing opinions on the first Summerhouse. 

Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., believed that Washington was leading the nation in acquiring American characteristics and breaking from the restraints of a city’s monopolizing character. The addition of natural elements, like parks, allowed those who dwell in cities to wander back out into the wilderness more frequently. The Capitol Grounds is just a small sliver of Washington’s many designed historic landscapes.

DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)



Intersection of North, South, & East Capitol Streets & Capitol Mall