US National Arboretum


A Capitol Idea

picture of columns by the reflecting pool
Every place has its landmarks.  One of Washington's most notable and unusual landmarks is the National Capitol Columns.  The stately permanence of the Corinthian columns and careful siting on a natural knoll in the Ellipse Meadow makes them seem as if they have been there for a very long time.  In fact, the National Capitol Columns are one of the most recent features added to the Arboretum, little more than a decade ago.

The columns began their life on the East Portico of the Capitol in 1828.  They were quarried from sandstone near Aquia Creek in Virginia and were barged to Washington in the early days of our country, before the familiar Capitol dome was completed.  Their stay at the Capitol was to be limited by an oversight.  The dome of the Capitol, completed in 1864, appeared as if it was not adequately supported by the columns because the iron dome that was ultimately built was significantly larger than the dome that the designer envisioned.  An addition to the east side of the Capitol was proposed to eliminate this unsettling illusion, but it was not constructed until 1958.

More time would pass before the columns would come to their final resting place.  It was not until the 1980s that Arboretum benefactor Ethel Garrett took up the cause of establishing a permanent home for them.

picture of the columns from the field Russell Page, a close friend of Garrett's, and landscape designer visited the Arboretum in September 1984, only months before his death.  He found the perfect site for them on the east side of the Ellipse where the grandeur of the columns would be in scale with the more than 20 acres of open meadow, a rarity in a built up city like Washington.  The columns are set on a foundation of stones from the steps that were on the east side of the Capitol.   Old identification marks from the quarry are still visible on some of the stones.

A reflecting pool fed by a small rivulet of water that runs down a channel in the steps reflects the columns and provides sound and movement.  Gently curved paths mowed in the Ellipse Meadow invite further exploration; you can easily walk across the Ellipse where you will find a capital, or top portion, of one of the columns.  Here you can see that incredible detail that the stone carver incorporated into the design.  Acanthus leaves are clearly visible, and the many layers of paint applied while the column was in place at the Capitol are evident on portions of the stone as well.

The Capitol Columns are handicapped accessible and parking is available. You can make your way to the Columns from the flowering tree walk. Most visitors will want to spend fifteen minutes to a half hour exploring the columns; a visit to the Capitol Columns fits nicely into any visit to the National Herb Garden. If you visit during the hottest months of June through September, you may want to bring drinking water with you to make your visit more pleasant.

The Capitol Columns are by far the most photographed attraction on the grounds of the U.S. National Arboretum, and commercial photography is allowed only with a permit. 

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Last Updated   April 1, 2010 9:33 AM
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