Frederick Law Olmsted's design of the U.S. Capitol Grounds created a landscape that appears to be naturally formed, even though the entirety of it was shaped according to his exacting designs. Amid the stately trees, colorful flower beds and verdant lawns, Olmsted created a hidden gem that is clearly not natural: the Summerhouse, which visitors delight in to this day.
This quiet brick grotto is embedded in the slope northwest of the U.S. Capitol Building and skillfully blended into the pastoral landscape by careful plantings. A welcome retreat from the noise and bustle of the surrounding streets, the shade and water provided by the Summerhouse still serve the purpose Olmsted intended them to.
"There has been much complaint from the want of a resting place for those who walk from the bottom of the hill to the [Capitol] building," Olmsted reported to Congress in 1880. "To meet this want, a structure is now being erected, designed to combine both drinking fountain and a secluded and cool retreat."
Olmsted's plans for a similar structure for visitors walking up from the southwest were never realized, perhaps due to criticism from some in Congress of the north Summerhouse. In 1881, F.H. Cobb, the engineer in charge of Capitol Grounds removed only one item from Olmsted's budget request for the coming year: $3,000 for a "Summer house on the south side." Before it was cut from the budget, however, Olmsted had begun designing a south summerhouse; his sketches for it have been rediscovered.
Cobb might have been reacting to those who ridiculed Olmsted's designs. Senator James B. Beck of Kentucky asked about the Summerhouse, to laughter that rang out in the Senate chamber, "What was that for? I heard it was built for a monkey house."
Perhaps he was making a reference to the wrought iron gates that prevent visitors from entering at night, although Beck had already established his opposition to Olmsted's designs. He called the fountains Olmsted built on the east side of the U.S. Capitol, "a couple of Dutch spittoons."
Beck had likely seen the Summerhouse before it was blended into its surroundings. While it was under construction, the entire brick building was visible. Much of the completed structure would be covered by soil that matched the slope of surrounding ground or obscured by plants, vines and trees.
Thomas Wisedell, who oversaw construction of the Summerhouse, had anticipated a negative reaction. He observed that "criticism may be expected until the roof is on as it will appear so uneven in its outlines that the Washington people will not understand it. They spoke of its mass and redness when I was there."
Wisedell knew that those concerns "will be lost in your planting," but Olmsted estimated that it would take three years for the plants around the building to grow enough for people to see the full effect of his design.
The first impressions of the Summerhouse were likely fatal to Olmsted's plans for a second such retreat and resting space for visitors in the landscape to the south of the U.S. Capitol. The rediscovered sketches are incomplete and intriguing, indicating a more open design with sheltered seating next to a pond. Some also seem to be studies of sightlines for the structure, reflecting Olmsted's guiding principle for this design, which was that the central feature — the U.S. Capitol Building — was never obscured and was always framed as the focus of attention.
The surviving drawings give an idea of what Olmsted intended, including detailed lists of plants and locations to place them. They also appear to show that he would have preserved the symmetry of the grounds by placing the second structure in the same location to the south of the U.S. Capitol that the Summerhouse occupies to the north of the building.
It appears that Olmsted did not plan to create a mirror image of the brick structure, however. He explored various ideas for the unbuilt retreat, which would have been roughly triangular and bounded by three walk-ways. At one point, he appeared to consider placing seats across one of these paths, allowing the water and plants to fill the entire triangle. Olmsted’s final design for the south summerhouse showed all of the seats, pond and plants within the three paths around it, as is the case in the north Summerhouse.
Overall, the effect would have been of a naturally formed pond, emanating from a spring. What would have seemed to be the pond’s perimeter would have been made with retaining walls and other earthworks obscured by ivy and other plants. While Olmsted wanted to give visitors a sheltered spot for restoration, most important to him was that every element in his design would keep the focus on the U.S. Capitol Building. His plans were, he wrote, "in all respects subsidiary to the central structure.”
We can only speculate now about what wasn't built. But, if the south summerhouse were as successful as the Summerhouse that was completed, it would have become another beloved element of Olmsted's landscape, which matches the grandeur of the building it frames.
The Summerhouse is my favorite part of the Capitol Grounds. I only knew a second one was conceived and unbuilt, but nothing more. Franklin, I appreciate your extensive research. Thank you for sharing this fascinating story!
It is a beautiful spot.
This is my first time of the Summerhouse built, our next trip to the Capital I put this as a number 1 stop. Especially in fall, Thank you for this trip into our past.