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Colors of Capitol Hill

Colors of Capitol Hill

Flowers by the West Front Fountain at the U.S. Capitol
Wednesday, February 20, 2013

After a winter of gray skies and leafless trees, the AOC Capitol Grounds crew never fails to wow visitors and staff with a kaleidoscope of flowers that, come spring, burst into bloom around the Capitol.

“Spring is a reawakening,” said David Ellis, supervisory gardener for the Capitol Grounds, who has been with the AOC for nine years. “When you see the yellow daffodils start coming up, even through an early spring snow, it seems like a new beginning.”

AOC Grounds Crew plants flowers on Capitol Hill

Throughout the year, Ralph LoJacono, general supervisor for the AOC Capitol Grounds Gardening Division, and the approximately 30 gardeners on the Grounds staff, watch and listen to how people react to the flowers around the Capitol. LoJacono tries to incorporate some of that feedback into the colors of bulbs and other flowers he chooses for the following spring. Staff and visitors comment constantly, he says, and his crew gets a lot of positive feedback. They know they’ve been successful when they see people pose for pictures in front of the flowers.

“People come to see the building,” says Ellis, “and the grounds are a bonus.”

Clearly reluctant to spoil the surprise colors he’s planned for spring 2013, LoJacono gave a general idea of what there is to look forward to. The red, white and blue pansies from the 57th Presidential Inauguration will still be in bloom, and the AOC Capitol Grounds staff will incorporate tulips in those same colors. According to LoJacono, however, red, white and blue will “go out the window” for the summer, and soft pastel colors mixed with some bright ones will be on display.

The Capitol Grounds gardeners spend several hectic weeks in October planting 60,000 bulbs in more than 200 planting beds — mostly by hand, one bulb per hole. In the spring and summer, those bulbs will grow into gorgeous tulips, daffodils and hyacinths located throughout the nearly 300-acre grounds around the Capitol.

While the areas around the House and the Senate have their own floral identities, the AOC Grounds staff still needs to make sure that the concepts complement the plantings around the Capitol. “You don’t want to have a plant on one side of the street whose color clashes with something on the other side of the street,” says LoJacono. Adds Ted Bechtol, superintendent of AOC Capitol Grounds, “We try to consider what the average pedestrian sees when he or she moves through the complex.”

Sustainability is an important consideration as well. While making his selections for spring and summer, LoJacono seeks out plants that are heat and drought resistant to aid the AOC’s undertaking to reduce its outdoor water and fertilizer usage.

Outdoor Tours
The Capitol Grounds have become so popular that the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) now offers tours of the grounds.

Visitor Guide Shane Hanley who has been a Guide for seven years, started thinking about a grounds tour shortly after the CVC opened in late 2008. “I always wanted to diversify the interpretive program,” says Hanley, who thought that a grounds tour would be an excellent supplement to the indoor tours of the Capitol.

“When people are outside, they get a different perspective on the building and its setting,” says Hanley. “I like talking about how the building and grounds have changed over time.”
The 45-minute outdoor tour, which is offered every day at 11 a.m. from June through October, takes visitors along the curving pathways to see the different viewing angles that landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted established for visitors as they looked at the Capitol. Hanley usually walks down Capitol Hill via the Summerhouse, showing visitors different trees and plantings along the way. 

Hanley and the other Visitor Guides who developed and give the tours, in coordination with Ted Bechtol, worked with the staff in the CVC’s Exhibits and Education Division on how best to present the information they’d researched about the grounds.

For families interested in exploring the grounds further, Hanley offers the CVC’s “My Capitol” booklet that includes a self-guided tour of the Capitol Grounds. “My Capitol” even has a quiz that teachers or parents can spring on their children when they get home.

The Olmsted Plan
According to Bechtol, the plan that Olmsted designed for the grounds of the Capitol between 1874 and 1892 called for mostly groundcover and perennials, not flowers. Olmsted’s primary goal was to not distract from the building — he wanted people to marvel at its architecture and ponder what the building symbolized. So he designed a landscape plan to show off the building and to minimize distractions of too many flowers, fountains and statuary. 

Over the years, the landscape has changed from Olmsted’s original plan. In the 1960s, there was a greater emphasis on flowers all over the city, mostly due to the influence of Lady Bird Johnson. Consequently, more color was added to the Capitol Grounds.

Bechtol and his crew try to balance the parameters of the original Olmsted design with today’s preferences. In a return to the style of Olmsted, the AOC Capitol Grounds staff has planted grass in Peace Circle on the West Front of the Capitol. Historical photos show that this was how Peace Circle was planted in Olmsted’s time. “We try to be as true to Olmsted as we can,” says Bechtol. “His plan is a very important design for a major public building. It provides a very dignified space that enhances the architecture and the symbolic character of the Capitol.”

Still, Bechtol admits, “People love to see flowers.”

— By Sharon Gang
Foundations & Perspectives Winter 2013