Carved from Virginia sandstone in 1828 and built to stand the test of time, this neo-classical façade is the lofty democratic ideal of a young nation made manifest. Work on the building itself was ongoing until 1864, at which time the familiar capitol dome was completed. The dome as constructed was significantly larger than it was initially conceived, ultimately dwarfing the east portico. Evolution in democracy and design. An addition to bring the scale of the portico in line with that of the rest of the structure was considered and finally executed in 1958. The historic remains of the original east portico – where presidents from Andrew Jackson to Dwight Eisenhower were inaugurated – were cast aside inauspiciously, disposed of, and fairly forgotten.
I visited on bike and foot in May 2011. The columns are marked on tourist maps, but the rest of the facade is quite decidedly not, and it can take a little bit of inference and exploration to find. I wouldn’t want to spoil that thrill for anyone else; by way of encouragement, just know that there are enough pieces of the puzzle out there that these remains can be found without too much difficulty.
Careless, haphazard, anonymous with no marker and no fence, protected from thieves and vandals not by park police but by virtue their own ungainly form, the remains in Rock Creek Park are striking in their decay. The weight of history bears down on the earth, sinking an inch or so every couple of years. Moss grows on the edifice of representative democracy as it was originally conceived. These crumbling remains offer a more primal connection with the nation’s history than some of the more contrived monuments downtown. Take Abraham Lincoln, for example, whose monument is a product of the 1910s. It is historical for many reasons, none of which has anything to do with Lincoln the man. Lincoln himself knew these stones, the stones of the east portico. He walked past them on his way to work in the House of Representatives. They bore witness as he took his solemn oath of office for the presidency.
Take as many photos as you like. Run your hands over their pocked surfaces. Rest on them, askew as they may be. Sit in their midst, in the shade of the park. Contemplate our nation and your place in it. In utter silence and solitude.
Twenty-two of the twenty-four capitol columns reside in the National Arboretum, rescued by enthusiast Ethel Garrett from similar obscurity, on the banks of the Potomac, strewn and abandoned. Important enough to keep, but not important enough to have a purpose. In the Arboretum, there are tourist crowds, and these appear on the map, but they’re so far from downtown that the thin crowds they draw add to their inscrutability. Something important happened here – except, it wasn’t here that it happened. A mystical temple. Thrust gloriously skyward. Supporting the dome of the sky. Celebrating some unspecified ideal.
The memory of the past comes to us in a modified, imperfect form, fractured and changed by the passage of time. So should too our landmarks, perhaps. Let them crumble as they will, that they might reflect reality as it is, rather than some glossy nostalgia conceived in committee and erected in an orderly fashion on some busy corner.
Rock Creek Park and the National Arboretum
DCinruins: A Guide to Urban Exploration in Washington, DC published by Insignificant Press.