The Grounds of the US Capitol - Symmetry Without Formality

Olmsted's 1874 Landscape and Hardscape Design for Washington, D.C.

Frederick Law Olmsted's map and landscape plan for the U.S. Capitol Grounds, 1874
Section of Frederick Law Olmsted's "General Plan for the Improvement of the U.S. Capitol Grounds," 1874 (East is top). Photo by Fotosearch / Archive Photos / Getty Images (cropped)

Is landscape architecture only about horticulture? Certainly not, and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol are living (and non-living) proof.

Between 1874 and 1892, established landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, beautified the grounds around the U.S. Capitol, creating a regal park for the people of America. As he successfully had done in New York City's Central Park, the landscape of Washington, D.C.

would forever be changed.

In 1873, the U.S. Congress wrote to the well-respected Olmsted and asked him to develop a landscape design for the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Capitol Building had undergone a second construction phase, finishing the placement of the cast iron dome, and now the exterior was to be attended to. By 1874 Olmsted's plan had been accepted, and work began.

"Throughout the plan, Olmsted imposed symmetrical order without geometric formality. Curving walks were used in preference to straight ones, contributing to the sense of informality. Much of what later landscape architects would call the 'hardscape'—fences, walks, lamps, and such—shows oriental, classical, and Romanesque influences. The planting conformed to Olmsted’s idea of managed scenery."—History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics, p. 347

Over 100 varieties of trees and bushes are planted on 58.8 acres around the Capitol.

Curved walkways offer a soothing contrast to the straight, neoclassical lines of the building. Olmsted planned careful groupings of trees and shrubbery which allowed unobstructed views. He used sculpture sparingly; his intent was to focus on the building.

Olmsted's Terrace Wall is his architectural legacy.

Olmsted's "General Plan for the Improvement of the U.S. Capitol Grounds" called for grand staircases and marble terraces around the building, designed to accentuate and balance the grand, new dome atop the structure. This hardscape became a vital part of the landscape architect's overall design plan—creating a pedestal for the entire Capitol structure.

"The ground is in design part of the Capitol, but in all respects subsidiary to the central structure"—Olmsted

Is a "terrace" architecture or the landscape of the Capitol? It is both. Hardscaping is often more expensive than "softscaping," however. In the case of the Capitol grounds, it took Congress many years and redesigns for the funds to be approved. The Olmsted Terrace, part of the original 1874 plan, was re-designed continually and not completed until 1894.

"The terrace walls which wrap around the Capitol to the north, west and south are constructed largely of Lee Massachusetts marble with a granite rubble foundation. The center west portion and balustrades are constructed of Vermont marble. The terrace was designed to provide a strong visible architectural base to the Capitol and heighten the grandeur of the building. It extends approximately 1,600 lineal feet and rises about 20 feet in height at its highest point."Architect of the Capitol

By 2014, the Architect of the Capitol had undertaken a multi-year project to preserve Olmsted's terrace.

Often called the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted pioneered the development of public parks in America. Many of his designs were inspired by European parks, gardens, and estates.

Learn More:

Sources: About the Grounds and Hardscapes, Explore Capitol Hill, Architect of the Capitol (AOC); History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics, S. Doc. 106-29, Chapter Ten, pp. 345-347 (PDF); Olmsted Terrace Stone Preservation, About AOC Projects [accessed August 30, 2014]