Summer House / West Grounds of the U.S. Capitol

Your Guide
Liz Guthrie, ASLA

Tucked away on a gently-sloping hill along the northwest lawn of the U.S. Capitol is the Summerhouse. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and completed in 1881, the brick, hexagonal, open-air structure was built as a resting spot for visitors and as a retreat within the Capitol grounds. The structure, which is sited slightly below grade, invites visitors to step down and into space through a series of arched brick entrances. The ornate patterns of each entrance give visitors a sense that this is a destination of some sort, despite its unobtrusive location. The Summerhouse’s central feature is a fountain originally intended to provide spring-fed drinking water. Unique stone seating with armrests line the interior, providing seating for up to 22 people.  Spanish-tiled overhangs provide shade over the seats, while views into a sun-dappled grotto at one end of the site fill the interior with sounds of water dripping onto lush plantings, giving the space a rustic, therapeutic feel.

Upon entering, I felt like I was in some kind of Shakespearean stage set, as the communal-like atmosphere and intimate scale created a feeling of romance and theater. While small in scale, each of the entrances and circular window openings provides distinct views of the surrounding landscape and striking architecture of the U.S. Capitol. Overall, Olmsted succeeds here in creating a welcoming, quiet, and serene space for contemplation and indeed, retreat.


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