Frederick Law Olmsted, considered the founder of American landscape architecture, is admired as much for his hardscapes as his landscapes. Commissioned in 1873 by the U.S. Congress to design the enlarged grounds of the U.S. Capitol, Olmsted spent the next 20-plus years overseeing the development of the 58.8-acre site. His plan included not only planting hundreds of trees and shrubs but also constructing walls, walkways, fountains and the massive marble terraces surrounding the north, west and south sides of the U.S. Capitol.
To help light walkways on the grounds, Olmsted also designed and constructed numerous lanterns with the help of his young architectural associate, Thomas Wisedell. Between 1882 and 1894, 14 of their most elaborate lanterns — featuring four different styles — were added to entry piers along the stone walls on or near First Street at the West Front. Four of the 14 were recently restored during the first of a two-year restoration project.
Located just off Garfield Circle and Peace Circle, the four restored lanterns mark the entrance to the two Olmsted walkways that lead in straight diagonals to the west terrace of the U.S. Capitol. The large bronze and glass lanterns are mounted on stately sandstone piers with intricately carved sandstone caps.
"We recently completed a metals inventory," said Mary Oehrlein, the Architect of the Capitol's (AOC) historic preservation officer. "The inventory gives us a condition assessment of each element and then we prioritize that list, so these fixtures rose to the top of the needs list," Oehrlein said.
A restoration company based in New Hampshire traveled to Washington, D.C., last fall and removed the large bronze lanterns from the sandstone piers; they took the lanterns back to their shop where they completely dismantled and refurbished the bronze while replacing some damaged framing on two of them. The bronze on all of the lanterns had corroded, so the contractors cleaned it, patinated the metal to return it to its original brown color, and then lacquered the bronze to seal and preserve the metal.
Meanwhile, AOC masons cleaned the stonework and AOC high voltage electricians rewired the piers. Temporary lights were installed on the stone piers to light the walkways while awaiting the return of the restored lanterns.
The Olmsted lanterns were originally lit with 12 gas jets. To replicate the original look as much as possible, new light fixtures were constructed to hold 12 LED lightbulbs. Although the lightbulbs have standard-sized sockets, the bulbs themselves are cylindrical in shape and cast yellow light that resembles a flame.
New glass replaced the white plastic sheeting that had been installed in the lanterns some years before. Here, too, the goal was to return the lanterns to their original look, which included clear glass. "It's partially replica historic glass," said Oehrlein. "The outside face of it is replica historic glass, but the inside face is a laminated glass system for safety reasons, to make it shatterproof." After the historic glass arrived, the reinstallation of the lanterns was completed in early August.
The ornamental styles of the stone carvings and bronze lanterns reflect an eclectic mix of Oriental and Victorian era influences that were popular in the second half of the 19th century.
Drew Coulson, landscape architect and project manager for the Capitol Grounds and Arboretum jurisdiction, helped coordinate the project. His role included working closely with the Construction and Security Division of the U.S. Capitol Police to secure contractor access to the work site and scheduling the AOC electricians who participated in the project.
"We were pleased to complete the restoration of the four lanterns despite the pandemic," said Coulson. "Everyone adjusted and did a great job."
By the end of this fiscal year, the remaining 10 of the 14 Olmsted lanterns on First Street will all be restored to their original glory, lighting the way for visitors to enjoy the U.S. Capitol Grounds as Olmsted had envisioned more than a century ago.
I live to hear the history and see the details of the architecture. I’m the geeking America tourist gawks at such works of art and takes picture of if. I appreciate the vision and skill that it takes to bring it to fruition because that’s what I lack.
Keep up the good work! God bless our United States of America and the people who built it!
Wow, what a change! They look great. Good job!
I was elated to read this article and learn of the lantern’s restorations reigniting a beautiful, historical detail at our nation’s Capitol. Outstanding!
I was born and raised in DC and my Father was a Capital Police Officer. The Capital has always been my favorite building and grounds. Do you think the fence will ever be removed? That fence just breaks my heart. My favorite time there was taking my grandson there and walking the grounds and touring the Capital and Library of Congress. Praying I can return and bring my other grandchildren and be able to walk freely around the grounds again.
The Capitol campus and grounds are historic icons of great importance to our nation, and it's heartbreaking to see the fencing surrounding it and the White House. It is a daily reminder of the lows to which Americans can sink.