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Architect's Notebook: Influences at Work and Play

Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers reflects on influences in his work, and the work of others, at the U.S. Capitol.

We are all an assembly of parts, pieces and life experiences, and we bring those experiences to the things we do every day. It's what makes us who we are! I've come to learn that my childhood, education and travels influence my dreams, desires and decisions. My love of history and traditional architecture certainly stems from my studies, experiences and travels.

I often think about what experiences others have had which influence their decisions. This sense of wonder and curiosity struck me this spring as I walked up Capitol Hill from the west. On first sight, the ornate lanterns Frederick Law Olmsted designed and placed along the U.S. Capitol's west perimeter wall are puzzling and sligthtly out of character. To me, they have an Asian-inspired look. To others, they emulate funeral lanterns used in ancient times.

What inspired Olmsted's decisions? Could it be from his travels, like mine? Before becoming landscape architect of the Capitol Grounds, Frederick Law Olmsted was a surveyor, a seafarer, a farmer, a journalist and a park superintendent. The influences from these chapters of his life certainly manifest themselves somehow in his work.

I wonder, why are these particular lanterns only on that one approach of the Capitol and not the others? Perhaps Olmsted decided to let his hair down a bit on the West Front as we all do in our own backyards. My own front yard is rather formal and plain, but my backyard is quite different, even fanciful. It includes several birdfeeders and my beloved hammock.

I like this seemingly playful side of Olmsted. Personally, I think that he aspired to contrast the Capitol's more formal East Front Plaza and principal entrance with a more playful, peaceful and restful area on the west. I think he envisioned visitors and travelers in need a restful spot after trekking from the other end of the city on their journey to the Capitol.

As I pass by Olmsted's lanterns, they tell me that I am entering a special place… a place to relax and renew my spirit. The intricate stone carvings slow me down for an extra few seconds to take in their beauty. The detailed and ornate iron fencing does the same as my eyes trace over the gentle curves. It momentarily takes my mind off of the trials and tribulations of the day… I think this is what he wanted.

It's refreshing.

This story is also published in the Summer 2016 issue of AOC's Tholos magazine.



Jerry Mansfield (not verified)
Love this - most fascinating. You know that now I have to go find these lanterns and conduct my own "investigation."

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