Secrets of the Capitol Grounds: Olmsted’s Summerhouse

–by Allie Swislocki

Perched on the hill leading down to the Mall from the Senate (north) wing of the Capitol is a small, red-brick structure. Most visitors to the Capitol complex walk straight past it, some oblivious to its presence, others curious but too focused on their next appointment to take the time to discover what’s inside.

Frederick Law Olmsted's "Summerhouse" (Architect of the Capitol)

What is inside is a beautiful oasis, a place for those weary from the climb up the hill—or weary of Washington in general—to rest their feet, sip water fresh from the fountain, and take in some of the best views of the Capitol. It is known as the “Summerhouse,” a hexagonal structure with three arched doorways beckoning visitors from all directions. Inside, stone benches with armrests line the walls, providing ample seating for up to 22 guests. The benches are covered and protected from the elements, while the roof is open in the middle to allow for warm sunshine and soft breezes to play through the idyllic setting. Visible through a window is a grotto, providing visitors the soothing image of a small stream of water tumbling and gurgling through foliage and over stones. Located in the center of the Summerhouse is a drinking fountain. Originally, water was piped in from a spring, with six metal cups or ladles hooked around the outside as vessels for visitors. The original design has been updated to hold three separate drinking fountains that produce filtered water, creating a more sanitary hydration experience.

Inside view of the water fountains in Olmsted's "Summerhouse" (Architect of the Capitol)

The Summerhouse was the brainchild of Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect extraordinaire and designer of the Capitol grounds. Begun in 1879 and finished in late 1880 or early 1881, the Summerhouse was meant to have a twin on the House (south) side of the West Front, but the second installation was never started because of protestations from Congress. Olmsted himself had concerns about the structure: he did not want it to intrude onto the Capitol’s landscape, “but he was also careful to ensure that it was sufficiently public to prevent its use for improper purposes,” according to accounts on the AOC website.

The grotto and waterfall view from inside Olmsted's "Summerhouse" (Architect of the Capitol)

Have you ever been in the Summerhouse or have you, like so many others, simply walked past it without ever taking the time to peek inside? Do you have other questions about the Capitol grounds? Be sure to let us know!

Source consulted:

AOC website
http://www.aoc.gov/cc/grounds/art_arch/summer_house.cfm

11 Comments

  1. I love this little oasis on the Senate side! While trekking up the hill after dropping a group off at their bus, I have often stopped for a few moments of peace and cool water! Thanks for the post!

  2. In about 1902 my mother lived in a house located where the entrance to Union Station is now. She played with her dolls in the Summer House. There is ( or was) a spring behind the Summer House called by locals, in early 1900s, the Indian Spring.

  3. Once, while a tourist, I was trudging from museum to museum in the summer heat, I wondered how on earth people managed to cool off in DC before air conditioning….Then I happily found the summerhouse and spent a cool 20 minutes sitting in the shade listening to the water bubble and I felt like I understood more about that earlier time. My favorite memory of my trip to Washington…..

  4. The feeling of a time long past is in this special place. Except for updating the drinking fountains, it stands as it did over a century and a quarter ago. I hope nobody ever gets a bug to “modernize” it!

  5. I served as a Senate Page in 1973. As a poor kid, I was flabbergasted by the wealth of the capital, a sudden presence of money in the pocket, and overwhelmed by social inputs. However, I was still a kid willing to make stupid choices. One night after seeing Don Ameche star in NO NO NANETTE at the National Theater, we four pages chose to walk home cutting across the capitol grounds. Upon hearing a distant Capitol Police officer asking us to stop, we instead ran away to the grotto, the unimproved, steep-banked area outside the bricks where the spring emerges. For about a half-hour, we hid in the dark against the banks under bushes while the Capitol police officers implored us to come out. Finally, they gave up and left us to skedaddle away unscathed.

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