The District of Columbia is, probably needless to say, notorious for columns. But they aren’t as stagnant or permanent as you may think. And when change is afoot, sometimes pieces get tossed.
Where do all those extra pieces go? One major renovation left columns, urns and stones in two primary places. The first is a grassy knoll in the National Arboretum, and the second is a far less manicured corner of Rock Creek Park.
Now columns are indeed everywhere in Washington, DC. I doubt that there’s any other city in the world that has installed as many columns in such a short amount of time. It took only about 150 years from the town’s inception in 1791 through the public works projects after the Great Depression to get almost all the columns up. Rome, on the other hand, wasn’t built in a day—as the saying goes.
The columns of DC are so ubiquitous that even my two-year old points out columns with no more interest than passing cars or houses on the street—like fixtures you expect and tally up along the way.
These columns scream permanence. They’re heavy—some ceremoniously hauled miles from their drop off to a brand new building symbolizing some form of strength, power or knowledge. They look impending—and make you feel important just for passing under them. Each is constructed with the same reverence as the Pyramids at Giza.
So how did some of these beauties get tossed aside with so little fan fair?
It all starts with how the US Capitol building was constructed—piecemeal, without a grand scheme originally designed all the way through. Dr. Thornton started the hodgepodge building’s (now diminutive) North and South wings, completed in 1803, though the central domed part was still just a pass-between.
Of course, the British burned it down pretty badly during the War of 1812. After it passed, though, the third architect tapped for the project built the central part and the original copper dome. And that’s what it’s East and West facades were basically designed to complement—a nice round little dome.
However, the growing body of congressional reps and senators outgrew the original North and South wings. By 1850, extended wings were added on, making the original copper dome look diminutive—oh… poor little cute copper dome.
Starting in 1855, the copper dome was replaced with the illustrious many-layered dome we have today, topped with the finishing touch Statue of Freedom in 1863.
The catch was that the new outsized dome was much larger than the original structure visually supported. According to visitors, it created the optical illusion that the dome protruded too far over the East side. It did, in fact, overlap the actual structural part of the Capitol into the portico. The visuals made it seem that the much wider (and taller) dome was now “overloading” the columns of the East Portico—as seen below mid-switcheroo.
Fortunately for the faint of heart, the major renovation effort from 1950s included an overhaul of the East Portico and a 33-foot extension. The minor addition was originally proposed in 1864, when they realized this visual illusion may cause a ruckus—but it hadn’t been implemented in the 100 years in between. It also left several tons of discarded Capitol materials left to the winds.
The crowning jewel of the refuse was a set of Capitol Corinthian Columns originally quarried in Aquia Creek, Virginia. They were part of the first set so lavishly decorated at the Capitol’s onset, that they were all dragged by human power, as planners feared that beasts of burden would have tainted the sanctity of the new nation’s purpose.
The majority of the materials were unceremoniously discarded to a remote corner of Rock Creek Park, South of Military Road and behind the Horse Center. There are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of pieces. As you can imagine, after over fifty years and a less than delicate delivery, many are in rough shape. Known as the Capitol Stone Yard, it’s a pretty cool resting place to see.
The more magnificent end to the discarded pieces counterparts ends in a 20 acre field in the National Arboretum. It’s like one was given a sweet little retirement package in the Bahamas while the other was tossed to a state-run facility—eek…
This set of 22 columns, dubbed the Capitol Columns look like they’ve been there for decades, centuries, or even longer. They’re reminiscent of the Parthenon—though made of Sandstone, and much smaller and many fewer. But they’ve only been there since the 1980’s, when Arboretum Benefactor Ethel Garrett pushed to get these beauties into a permanent (and visible) home.
Thanks to Garrett, and close friend and landscape designer Russel Page, 22 of the original 24 columns now proudly stand in one of the largest pieces of open space within the District. Two of them were left cracked, base-less and capital-less in the Arboretum. The 22 sit on the slated flooring of the steps of the Old East Portico—an appropriate base for such beauty.
The Capitol Columns obviously got a better retirement package than the Capitol Stone Yard pieces. Even their names make one sound like an upscale neighborhood and the latter like a grave yard. However, as they are increasingly recognized as a piece of American History, we can appreciate them for what they are—and where they are, as well.