Locating History on Capitol Hill

From the Wall Street Journal's OWN Magazine - photos and story

A synonym for Location Location Location? Try History History History. "Face it," says Washington architect Judith Capen, "Most of our prime lots were developed years ago."

Many of them on or around Capitol Hill.

Capen's firm, architrave architects, pc, has been involved in many high-profile restorations including the Library of Congress and the U. S. Capitol, "Talk about a good location," she says with a laugh.

The Capitol

The Capitol's site was, in Pierre L'Enfant's words, "a pedestal waiting for a monument."  L'Enfant, who designed much of the city and selected the spot, did not design the building. He proved too crotchety about providing plans, insisting they were "all in his head."

A competition was held and plans were submitted by William Thornton, a Scottish  doctor living in the British West Indies. Approved by President Washington, and begun in 1893, those plans were much modified years later by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Latrobe began construction, left town when it was underway, but  returned to begin again after the partially completed building was destroyed by the British during the War of 1812.

The Architect of the Capitol's website offers a succinct history: "The United tates Capitol has been built, burnt, rebuilt, extended and restored." 

Neoclassical in style,  with elements borrowed from ancient Greece and Roman architecture, with 540 rooms and 658 windows overlooking four acres of gardens and trees, the floor area of the Capitol building covers more than 16 acres.

More than the preeminent symbol of the nation, the Capitol dome, topped with the Statue of Freedom, is the backdrop to a neighborhood. A neighborhood named, not long ago, as one of the ten best in the United States by the American Planning Association, with 8,000 buildings that range in style from tiny wooden dwellings and simple brick row houses to elaborate Italianate and fanciful Victorian homes.  The largest residential historic district in the city, it is a neighborhood surrounded by history.

The Supreme Court

When the partially completed Capitol was destroyed during the War of 1812, a building was hastily constructed nearby to house the young government; this came to be known as The Old Brick Capitol. It was on this site, in 1935, that architect Cass Gilbert built the Supreme Court building with its white Vermont marble facade.  

Neoclassical in style, with its 16 marble Corinthian columns supporting the elaborately carved pediment, it was not universally admired; those that did, praised it as dignified, those that did not, called it bombastic.

Curiously, this is not the highest court in the land. That honor goes to the basketball court above the courtroom below. As the story goes, jury-rigged hoops set up by staffers in the 1940's became a regulation-sized court some year's later. (There's also a Supreme Court exercise class that meets regularly, with staffers, justices, and select members of the neighborhood).         

The Supreme Court building is part of what is known as the Capitol Complex, an assortment of buildings and spaces that includes the Capitol itself, the Capitol Visitor Center, the Congressional office buildings, and the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the Library of Congress. 

The Library of Congress

The Library is actually contained in three locations on The Hill-- with a fourth for films and recordings in Culpeper, Virginia. 

Of them, the Thomas Jefferson building is the oldest and most splendid. Constructed in 1897 of grey New Hampshire granite, it was built in Italian Renaissance style, with a great hall and grand staircase, murals and a magnificent dome, statues, busts, friezes, and reliefs.  While daily tours are given, and free concerts on winter evenings, it is a working library, with 22 reading rooms for collections that include rare books, African studies, and children's titles.
The fanciful Neptune fountain, that welcomes visitors to the library, by the way, created such a ruckus at its unveiling with its nakedly rollicking nymphs and tritons, that sculptor Roland Hinton applied a judicious fig leaf to the god of the sea, though it doesn't hide much.

Eastern Market

Designed in 1873 by Adolph Cluss, a German immigrant who also designed the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building, Eastern Market is the centerpiece of the Capitol Hill community. The handsome red brick building is one of a handful of public markets remaining in the city, and one of the oldest.

Cluss, says the National Park Service, "made a specialized utilitarian structure based on the prevailing ideas for market design. Among them were a lofty one-story space with an open plan, stall arrangement, natural light, easy access and exit, ventilation and no heat for better storage of perishable items." 

Gutted by fire in 2007, the market has been completely restored with a few judicious improvements, like heat. And air conditioning. 

Hill dwellers shop here for meats and poultry, fish and baked goods, vegetables, cheeses and flowers. Weekends are particularly lively, with a farmer's line featuring fresh produce and a crafts fair that spills into the street. 

The Old Naval Hospital 

Nine blocks from the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, the Old Naval Hospital looms in solitary brick splendor behind a grand high wrought iron fence.

Built in 1866, for the sailors and marines of the Potomac Fleet, it was considered state of the art for its time. Architect Ammi B. Young designed it with high windows admitting plenty of air and sunshine, gas lighting, and running water. The hospital's first patient was Benjamin Drummand, a black sailor who spend a year and a half recuperating from wounds received early in the Civil War.

Fallen to near ruin, the building has undergone a complete restoration over the past year and will reopen this fall as a community center, with rooms for meetings and events, a demonstration kitchen, computer labs, and offices for neighborhood organizations. 

Lincoln Park

Of the 59 Parks in the neighborhood of Capitol Hill, triangles and squares designed by Pierre L'Enfant, Lincoln Park, a mile east of the Capitol, is the largest.
While today the park is sweetly shaded by a splendid canopy of cherry and apple trees, and a popular spot for neighborhood sunbathers, joggers, dog-walkers, and toddlers, in 1861 it was the site of the Lincoln United States Army General Hospital, a huge structure built of canvas covered logs with beds for 2,575 wounded Civil War soldiers.
The park, the first to bear the president's name, features a memorial statue of Lincoln, erected in 1876 and unveiled at a ceremony attended by president Ulysses S. Grant and 25,000 onlookers, with Frederick Douglass delivering the keynote address. Across the park is a monument to of African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune; the first statue honoring a black woman in the District of Columbia. 

Sewell-Belmont House

Built in 1800, this federal-style mansion was the residence of Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury.

It was partially destroyed in 1814, when a patriot, hidden behind the house, fired at British Admiral Ross, killing his horse. The return fire set the building ablaze.

Today, the house is the headquarters of the National Women's Party, and a museum of posters and photos and memorabilia of the woman's suffrage movement. The portraits of Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony and their cohorts are rather grim, but the tiny --yet life-sized -- ivory statue of Joan of Arc is a delight to behold. 

Marine Commandant's House

One of the oldest buildings in the Federal City, the white brick mansion adjacent to the Marine Barracks survived the war of 1812 as the partially built Capitol and the Washington Navy Yard, several blocks away, went up in flames.

One of the most popular events in the city (no matter your politics) are the Marine "Parades" held each Friday evening from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Bus loads of visitors arrive for music by the "The President's Own" United States Marine Band, "The Commandant's Own" The United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps, and presentations by the Marine Corps Color Guard, and the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon.

John Phillip Sousa, was born just a few blocks away, at 636 G St SE. The March King's birthplace, now a private home, has been only slightly modified since it was built in the mid-nineteenth century. 

The Washington Navy Yard

Hidden behind fortress-like walls and with a daytime population as great as the community that contains it, the Washington Navy Yard on the Anacostia River, was established on October 2, 1799, and is the oldest shore establishment of the U.S. Navy.

The 126 acre Yard, with 188 buildings, was the Navy's largest ship building facility until the War of 1812 when it was burnt by Commodore Thomas Tingey to prevent its capture by the British.

Rebuilt after the war, it became the ceremonial gateway to the capital. It was here that the first Japanese diplomatic mission was welcomed, and the body of World War I's Unknown Soldier was received. By World War II it was the largest naval ordnance plant in the world, though such industry was phased out in 1964.
Today, the Navy Yard in headquarters for Naval District Washington. Open to the public is the destroyer, the U.S.S. Barry, the Navy Art Gallery, and the Navy Museum, with its displays of model ships, sub periscopes, a space capsule, art and artifacts from the Revolutionary War to the present day. Workshops and musical performances are given throughout the year. Just make sure you bring your i.d.

Union Station

When Union Station opened in 1907 it was the largest railroad station in the world, it also consolidated a jumble of rail lines that ran higgledy piggledy about the city. Until the Daniel Burnham designed, beaux arts building was constructed, each railroad line had its own station. "If it was the B & O you went to the B & O Station, if it was the Chesapeake and Ohio, you went to the Chesapeake and Ohio," said Nancy Metzger,  chair of the Historic Preservation Committee of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society.

Built in massive scale, the facade is more than 600 feet long and the marble and granite and gold leaf waiting room's ceiling towers 96 feet above the floor.

Magnificently restored in 1988, the station is now a mall with shops and restaurants and a METRO station in addition to trains. The presidential suite, once used to greet visiting dignitaries including King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and King Prajadipok of Siam is now B. Smith's restaurant.  

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