The hill of Capitol Hill rises in the center of the nation’s capital and flows eastward. It was this protruberance, called Jenkins Heights in 1790, upon which Pierre L’Enfant decided to place “Congress House,” a site which the French planner described as a “pedestal waiting for a superstructure.” Stretching easterly behind the Capitol Building along wide avenues lies the residential area known as Capitol Hill, one of the oldest residential communities in Washington. Once an enclave of boarding houses for members of Congress who hated the idea of establishing permanent residency in Washington, it is now the town’s largest residential historic district.
Nothing remains of this community today, having been razed to house the Capitol support buildings.Those support buildings are indicative how the government has ballooned in recent times. For more than 100 years the business of Washington was conducted almost exclusively inside the Capitol Building itself. The Supreme Court? Go to the Capitol. The Congressional library? Inside the Capitol. Your representative’s office? Inside the Capitol. Today there are a half-dozen major office buildings and a few satellites for the Congress alone. The Supreme Court and library have their own buildings on the site of many of those early boarding houses.
Today’s streetscape is a pastiche of rowhouses in a cornucopia of styles standing shoulder-to-shoulder withearly 19th century Federal townhouses mingling with ornate mid-1800s Italianate bracketed houses and then stylish Victorian residences from a few decades later. The street pattern in Capitol Hill is still one L’Enfant would recognize from his original 1791 Plan for the Federal City, a vision of grand diagonals superimposed over a standard grid pattern. To take a look, our walking tour will begin at the top of old Jenkins Hill...
The United States Capitol
William Thornton, a Scottish-trained physician hailing from the British West Indies, won a design competition to design young America’s most important building and President George Washington personally set the cornerstone in place on September 18, 1793, beginning a decades-long journey to the iconic structure we see today. Architect James Hoban, who was working on the President’s House, was charged with carrying out the inexperienced Thornton’s plan and he saw to enough building to host its first session of Congress on November 17, 1800. In 1803, construction resumed under Benjamin Henry Latrobe who completed the south and north wings. By 1813, Latrobe, with his job done, departed with the wings connected by a temporary wooden passageway. On August 24, 1814, invading British troops set fire to the building and only a rainstorm prevented its complete destruction. Latrobe trekked back to town in 1815 to make repairs, introducing marble into the interior. The restoration continued under Charles Bulfinch, Boston’s master architect, who redesigned the central section, making the dome that topped the section higher. By 1850, the Capitol could no longer accommodate the increasing numbers of senators and representatives. Another competition was held offering $500 for the best plan to extend the Capitol. Unable to decide between the plans, Congress divided the prize money among five architects and Thomas U. Walter was selected to supervise the expansion which necessitated a larger, fireproof cast-iron dome. A century later, in the 1960s, an extension to the East front added 102 more rooms but for the past half-century ongoing work has been confined to shoring up and preserving the iconic landmark.
START ON THE EAST SIDE OF THE CAPITOL (AWAY FROM THE MALL). WALK COUNTERCLOCKWISE.
East Capitol Street
After building his reputation as America’s greatest landscape architect with his work on New York’s Central Park and elsewhere, Frederick Law Olmsted got the call from Congress in 1874 to design a comprehensive plan for the Capitol grounds. Olmsted designed not only the terraced lawns and traffic patterns but street furniture as well. The lampstands on the plaza are his.
northeast lawn of the Capitol
Olmsted anticipated everything in his grounds plan; here he created a pair of waiting stations for the horse-drawn trolleys that arrived each day. They were known as “herdics” for the Herdic Phaeton Company that held the trolley concession for the Capitol.
The Summer House
northwest front of Capitol Building
After hearing grumblings from visitors that there was no drinking water and no place to sit, Frederick Law Olmsted responded by launching construction of the red brick Summer Housearound a spring in the hillside in 1879. The structure featured six walls punctuated with broad arched openings outfitted with wrought-iron gates. The spring water has been replaced by piped city water in the Summer House.
northwest front of Capitol Building
This stone tower worked in tandem with the grotto to force fresh, cooled air into the Capitol via a vent and a series of underground tunnels.
Pennsylvania Avenue and 1st Street, NW
Originally known as the Navy Monument, this remembrance was created by Franklin Simmons in 1877 to honor Union naval efforts during the Civil War. The two allegorical female figures at the top of the 40-foot high memorial represent America weeping on the shoulders of History over the loss of her naval defenders. Simmons was a Maine native who came to Washington during the Civil War where he executed sculptures of members of Abraham’s Lincoln’s administration and his top military leaders.
1st Street and East Mall, east front of Capitol Building
This is one of the largest equestrian statues in the world and one of the most important in Washington. A relatively unknown sculptor, the self-taught Henry Merwin Shrady, was chosen from among 23 artists to honor the Civil War general and 18th president. Shrady labored for 22 years to complete the final memorial, which has 12 horses, 11 soldiers, 4 lions and soldier groups from the artillery, infantry and cavalry. The Grant Memorial was dedicated on April 27, 1922, the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Hiram Ulysses Grant in Point Pleasant, Ohio. Shrady was not among the dignitaries on hand for the unveiling - he had died two weeks earlier from strain and overwork.
east front of Capitol Building
Necessity being the mother of invention, this six-acre reflecting pool was birthed when I-395 was tunneled just west of the Capitol. Nothing with roots could be planted atop the tunnel so a shallow pool of water was proposed to cover the space. The edges and angles of the pool were constructed so that it indeed could capture the reflection of the entire Capitol dome.
northeast corner of the front of the Capitol Building
Like Abraham Lincoln, James Abraham Garfield, the second assassinated American President, was born in a rural midwestern log cabin. He rapidly advanced to the rank of major general in the Civil War and was appointed chief of staff of the Army of the Cumberland. This nine-foot statue by John Quincy Adams Ward was erected in 1887, six years after President Garfield died of an assassin’s bullet, having been in office for not even a year.
TURN RIGHT ON MARYLAND AVENUE.
United States Botanical Garden
1st Street, Maryland Avenue and Independence Avenue
The United States Botanic Garden traces its beginning to 1816, when the constitution of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C., proposed the creation of a botanic garden to “collect, grow, and distribute plants of this and other countries that might contribute to the welfare of the American people.” A garden was duly established by Congress in 1820 to the west of the Capitol Grounds but the high-minded organization disbanded in 1837 and the grounds fell into disrepair. It was an era of scientific expeditions, however, and after the United States Exploring Expedition to the South Seas returned to Washington in 1842 with a haul of exotic plants the idea of a national botanic garden was re-visited. This classically inspired facility arrived in 1933; behind the multiple arches full-sized trees are grown; the aluminum greenhouse ribcage was the world’s largest when it was built.
WALK EAST ON INDEPENDENCE AVENUE.
1st Street and Independence Avenue, SW
Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, designer of the Statue of Liberty, crafted this fountain for America’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The fountain, enhanced by 11-foot female figures, was designed in three identical sections with turtles and large shells rising to the pedestal. The Park was created in 1932 with geometrically arranged beds to showcase the 30-foot high monument.
Rayburn House Office Building
Southwest of the Capitol bounded by Independence Avenue, South Capitol Street, First Street, and C Street, SW
In March 1955 Speaker Sam Rayburn introduced an amendment for a third House office building, although no site had been identified, no architectural study had been done, and no plans prepared. The Architect of the Capitol, J. George Stewart, with the approval of the House Office Building Commission, selected the firm of Harbeson, Hough, Livingston and Larson of Philadelphia to design a simplified, classical building in architectural harmony with other Capitol Hill structures. The cornerstone was laid in May 1962, and full occupancy of the building began in February 1965.
Longworth House Office Building
south of the Capitol bounded by Independence Avenue, New Jersey Avenue, South Capitol Street, and C Street, SE
Plans to provide the House of Representatives with a second office building were hatched in 1925, only 17 years after the first dedicated office space in the Cannon Building had been finished. Cut into a sloping lot, the Longworth Building varies in height from two to four stories above a rusticated granite base. With its projecting Ionic porticoes, the Longworth Building has been lauded as one of the town’s best Neoclassical buildings; it was ready for duty in 1933.
Cannon House Office Building
southeast of the Capitol bounded by Independence Avenue, First Street, New Jersey Avenue, and C Street SE
For over 100 years America’s government business was handled inside the United States Capitol. By the dawn of the 20th century it could no longer handle the sprawling federal government. In 1904 the prominent New York architectural firm of John Carrère and Thomas Hastings was called upon to deliver Beaux Arts office buildings to relieve the overcrowded Capitol. Hastings took charge of the House Office Building project, while Carrère helmed the construction of an almost identical office building (now named the Russell Senate Office Building) for the Senate. Both are dressed in limestone and marble. Legislators shuttle back and forth to the Capitol via underground passages. In 1962 it was named for former Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon.
TURN LEFT ON 3RD STREET.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
3rd and A streets, SE
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church began life in 1867 as a mission of the Washington parish of Christ Church. The next year a small frame chapel was raised where the Library of Congress stands now; it was moved to this site in 1880. In 1888 the current Romanesque Revival house of worship was begun next door and the wooden structure trundled on as a choir room and parish hall until it was pulled down in 1894.
TURN LEFT ON EAST CAPITOL STREET.
Folger Shakespeare Library
201 East Capitol Street, SE
Henry Clay Folger, a millionaire Standard Oil executive, accumulated the largest collection of Shakespearean materials in the world. He purchased the land and retained Paul Cret to design his library in the modern classical style, to blend with its neighbors on Capitol Hill. Folger died two weeks after the cornerstone was laid in 1930; his will appointed the Trustees of Amherst College to administer the library, and it remains in their hands today. The entire collection consists of approximately 280,000 books and manuscripts, and 27,000 paintings, drawings, prints, and engravings. Perhaps the most famous work in the Folger Shakespeare collection is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works, printed in 1623 and known as the First Folio. Out of a world supply of 238 First Folios, Folger collected 79 copies, one of which is always on display in the Great Hall. The library’s north wall features nine elaborate bas reliefs of famous scenes from Shakespeare, by sculptor John Gregory.
TURN LEFT ON 1ST STREET.
Library of Congress
1st Street and Independence Avenue, SE
In 1800, Congress voted to buy books and create a library. From 1800 to 1814, the Library of Congress was shuffled through rooms inside the Capitol until it was burned by the British in the War of 1812. Congress then purchased Thomas Jefferson’s personal library collection in 1815 at cost, to replace its losses. It wasn’t until 1886 that funds were made available for a dedicated building for the collection. Drawing inspiration from the Paris Opera House and topped by a 23-carat, gold-plated dome, it has been called “the largest, costliest, and safest library building in the world. Formally known as the Jefferson Building, the collection opened to the public in 1897. Inside visitors will find approximately 90 million items on 540 miles of shelves.
TURN AROUND AND WALK NORTH ON 1ST STREET.
United States Supreme Court Building
1st and East Capitol streets, NE
For its first 145 years the Supreme Court never had a permanent home, convening in various chambers in the Capitol building. It took former President William Howard Taft, Chief Justice from 1921 to 1930, to persuade Congress to cough up money for a real home for the nine justices. Celebrated Minnesota architect Cass Gilbert delivered an appropriately somber temple of justice, highlighted by a parade of marble entrance columns. Capping the entrance is the pediment filled with a sculpture group by Robert Aitken, representing Liberty Enthroned Guarded by Order and Authority. Cast in bronze, the west entrance doors sculpted by John Donnelly, Jr., depict historic scenes in the development of the law. Each door weighs 13,000 pounds.
TURN RIGHT ON CONSTITUTION AVENUE.
144 Constitution Avenue, NE
The Sewall-Belmont House was built on a tract of land originally granted to the second Lord Baltimore by King Charles of England. The property was divided several times, and it was Daniel Carroll who ultimately ceded much of the land to the United States as a site for the new capital. After Washington was laid out, Caroll bought a small parcel of land and later in 1799 sold the property to Robert Sewall. According to his tax records, Sewall built the main house in 1800. He attached it to a small one-room farmhouse believed by some experts to date from 1750. Tradition has it that British troops set fire to the house during the War of 1812. It is believed that gunshots from inside or behind the Sewall residence provoked the attack. The house remained in the possession of Sewall descendants until 1922, when it was purchased by Senator Porter H. Dale of Vermont. Seven years later, in 1929, Dale sold it to the National Woman’s Party who have headquartered here ever since.
RETURN TO 1ST STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
Dirksen Senate Office Building
northeast of the Capitol, bounded by Constitution Avenue, Second Street, First Street, and C Street, NE
The Dirksen Senate Office Building was the second of three office buildings constructed for the United States Senate. New York architects Otto R. Eggers and Daniel Paul Higgins drew up plans for the seven-story building faced in marble. It was occupied in 1958 and carries the name of Everett McKinley Dirksen who represented Illinois in Congress for 36 years. The Republican senator was Minority Leader during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Russell Senate Office Building
northeast of the Capitol, bounded by Constitution Avenue, Delaware Avenue, First Street, and C Street, NE
The Russell Senate Office Building is the stylistic twin of the Cannon House Office Building on the opposite side of the Capitol. The oldest of Senate office buildings was completed in 1908.
FOLLOW 1ST STREET TO UNION STATION PLAZA.
50 Massachusetts Avenue
The ‘Union” was of the Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio railroads which announced in 1901 they would abandon their individual terminals and run their trains here. Previously the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad tracks ran through the National Mall. Their removal would create the treasured space seen today. Architects Daniel Burnham and Peirce Anderson angled Union Station to face the United States Capitol and designed an edifice worthy of comparison using the finest marbles, granite and gold leaf to craft their Neoclassical composition. Inside the coffered waiting room ceiling rises 96 feet above the passengers. As many as 200,000 people funneled through the Union Station gates each day during World War II but afterwards, with the rise of air travel and the decline in railroad traffic the station seemed destined to be mothballed like so many of its American cousins. But the space was reconfigured with shops, restaurants, and movie theaters and to accept Amtrak trains and today Union Station is again one of Washington’s busiest and best-known places, visited by 20 million people each year.
RETURN TO THE CAPITOL AND THE TOUR STARTING POINT.