–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.
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.
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.
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!