Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Cherry Blossoms & The Evolution of the US Capitol Gardens & Grounds

Cherry Blossoms at the United States Capitol Building

Each spring, America's National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington, DC. In a simple ceremony on March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Herron Taft & Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first 2 trees from Japan on the north bank of the Tidal Basin. In 1915, the United States Government reciprocated with a gift of flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan.

Cherry Blossoms in Washington DC

Only a little over 100 years before the first Cherry Blossoms arrived in Washington DC from Japan, on May 3, 1802, Washington DC was incorporated as a city. In 1789, the US Congress - Senate & House of Representatives - assembled for the 1st time in New York. Congress moved to Philadelphia in 1790, and then to Washington, DC, in 1800. In 1807, the Congress moved into the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, 4 years before the Capitol’s House wing was fully completed. In 1814, the nation was severely tested, when invading British forces burned the Capitol. It would be another 5 years before the chambers were fully restored. In 1857, the House met for the first time in its present-day chambers. This posting will look at the development & the symbolism of the building & the gardens around the United States Capitol.

Classical Temple Dedicated to Liberty, Justice, and Peace. James Trenchard. Temple of Liberty. The Columbian Magazine, (Philadelphia) 1788, Library of Congress.  This engraving of a classical temple building depicts statues on the roof, including Libertas (liberty), Justicia or Themis (justice), & Ceres (peace). Libertas is at the peak with the others on the corners. In the background a rising sun radiating beams of light with one shining upon Libertas holding her staff & freedom cap. Emerging from the pure, bright sunlight in the distance is the new nation--lady Columbia with an eagle headdress. Standing below is Concordia holding a horn of plenty; Columbia's winged son holding a scroll with CONSTITUTION written on it; and Clio, the muse of history, beginning to write the history of the new nation. Scrolling across the front of the classical temple are the words: SACRED TO LIBERTY, JUSTICE AND PEACE. Below this engraving was written,

Behold a Fabric now to Freedom rear'd,
Approved by friends, and ev'n Foes rever'd,
Where Justice, too, and Peace, by us ador'd,
Shall heal each Wrong, and keep ensheath'd the Sword
Approach then, Concord, fair Columbia's Son,
And faithful Clio, write that "We Are One."
In 1788, Philadelphia's Columbian Magazine published an engraving by James Trenchard called the Temple of Liberty. Trenchard, born in 1746, at Penns Neck in Salem County, New Jersey, was an engraver & seal cutter in Philadelphia, and the artist for many of the plates for the Columbian Magazine, whose circulation was the largest of any 18th century magazine published in America.

Dr. William Thornton [Sketch of Section of Monument and Conference Room], c. 1797 Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress. Thornton's drawings and concept won the contest to design the capitol.

Built on what came to be called Capitol Hill, its grounds changed greatly over the first half of the 19th century. I thought you might enjoy seeing the various depictions of the changing landscape.

Dr. William Thornton [East Elevation for North Wing], 1795-1797 Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress.

Fierce competition over the site of the capital city had raged for years, reaching its height during the First Federal Congress, in New York between 1789 - 1790.

Dr. William Thornton [Plan of Ground Story of the Capitol,] c. 1795-1797 Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress.

The always clever Alexander Hamilton helped broker a compromise in which the federal government would assume the war debt incurred during the Revolution, in exchange for support from northern states for locating the capital further south than New York or Philadelphia.

Dr. William Thornton's winning plan for the Capitol of the United States of America.

The compromise between the advocates for the North and those favoring a Southern location ended the feuding by agreeing on a nearly neutral location on the Potomac River, equidistant between North & South, and easily defended. (It had been George Washington's choice all along, and it was Hamilton's goal to please the General.)

c 1800 A View of the Capitol of Washington Watercolor by William Birch.

The agreement called for a 100-square mile federal district to be located somewhere along the Potomac River at a site to be chosen by fellow river-property owner, George Washington. Washington picked the junction of the Potomac & Anacostia Rivers. He then chose Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a military artist who had served under him at Valley Forge, to design the new federal city.

An 1801 View of George Town and the Federal City, or the City of Washington before its development into the federal city. Color aquatint by T. Cartwright of London after George Beck of Philadelphia. Published by Atkins & Nightingale of London and Philadelphia.

The Capitol of the United States crowns what was then Jenkins Hill in Washington, D.C., and houses the legislative branch of government, the House of Representatives & the Senate.

1806 Benjamin Latrobe View of the Capitol of the United States.

Pierre Charles L'Enfant chose Jenkins Hill as the site for the United States Capitol building, which rose 88 feet above the Potomac River, and sat 1 mile from the White House. L'Enfant declared, "It stands as a pedestal waiting for a monument."

A view of the still undeveloped East Branch of Potomac River at Washington. Watercolor by August Kollner (1813-1906) in 1839.

The land on which the Capitol stands was 1st occupied by the Manahoacs & the Monacans, who were subtribes of the Algonquin Indians. Early settlers reported that these tribes occasionally held councils not far from the foot of the hill. This land eventually became a part of Cerne Abbey Manor. At the time of its acquisition by the federal government "Jenkins Hill" was owned by the well-to-do Marylander Daniel Carroll of Duddington, and it stood on a tract of land originally known by the more classically-inspired name of "New Troy."

1814 George Munger (1781-1825). United States Capitol after the British burned the capitol.

Thomas Jefferson came up with the name Capitol Hill, consciously invoking the famous temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill in ancient Rome. The building would be America's Temple of Liberty.

Depiction of the United States Capitol before the fire of 1814.

George Washinton & his allies wanted buildings that would embody the nation's hoped-for future. "In our Idea the Capitol ought in point of prosperity to be on a grand Scale, and that a Republic especially ought not to be sparing of expenses on an Edifice for such purposes."

1815 1st known depiction of the Capitol in Relation to Its Grounds by Benjamin Henry Latrobe [Plan of the Mall and the Capitol Grounds], Geography and Map Division Library of Congress.

The 1792 competition for its design was won by Dr. William Thornton (1759–1828), a physcian & an amateur architect, with a proposal for a Palladian-inspired building featuring a central domed rotunda flanked by the Senate & House wings.

1824 Charles Burton's West Front of the Capitol of the United States. This view of the Capitol was a gift to the Marquis de Lafayette to commemorate his speech delivered in to the House in 1824. Here workmen are constructing the earthen terraces along the western front, while in the foreground are the growing Lombardy poplars planted during Thomas Jefferson’s administration.

President George Washington, dressed in masonic attire, laid the cornerstone in 1793, in a masonic ceremony. At this time the site of the Capitol was a relative wilderness partly overgrown with scrub oak. Oliver Wolcott, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, described the soil as "an exceedingly stiff clay, becoming dust in dry and mortar in rainy weather." A muddy creek with swampy borders flowed at the base of the hill, and an alder swamp bordered by tall woods occupied the place where the United States Botanic Garden now stands. The city's inhabitants, like L'Enfant & Washington, expected that the capital would grow to the east, leaving the Capitol & the White House essentially on its outskirts. For some years the land around the Capitol was regarded as a common, crossed by roads in several directions & intended to be left as an open area.

1828 Contrast Between the Temple of Liberty and Nearby Log Cabins by John Rubens Smith. [West Front of the Capitol]. Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress.

Construction proceeded slowly under a succession of architects, including Stephen Hallet (1793), George Hadfield (1795-98) and James Hoban (1798-1802), architect of the White House, who completed the Senate wing in 1800.

1830-40 Early Perspective Drawing of Completed Capitol Attributed to George Strickland [Perspective drawing of the Capitol from the Northeast,] In the Collection of the Architect of the Capitol.

Though the building was incomplete, the Capitol held its first session of United States Congress on November 17, 1800.

Das Capitol in Washington" Steel engraving by E. Gr├╝nenwald after an earlier drawing by H. Brown. Published in 1851.

Benjamin Latrobe took over in 1803; by 1811 he had renovated the Senate wing and completed the House wing.

1839 Capitol Overlooks Pastoral Landscape by Russell Smith. Capitol from Mr. Elliot's Garden. In the Collection of the Architect of the Capitol.

Benjamin Latrobe first considered the Capitol building in relation to its grounds and made a watercolor of the possible landscape design in 1815.

1839 Charles Fenderich's Elevation of the Eastern Front of the Capitol of the United States.

The Senate wing was completed in 1800, while the House wing was completed in 1811. However, the House of Representatives moved into the House wing in 1807.

August Kollner (1813-1906). West Front of the United States Capitol. New York: Goupil, Vibert, & Co., 1839. Library of Congress.

The Capitol was burned by British troops in 1814; and in the following year, Latrobe began its reconstruction and redesign.

1840 W.H. Bartlett's Ascent to the Capitol in Nathaniel P. Willis, American Scenery, vol. 1. London Virtue.

Boston architect Charles Bullfinch succeeded him in 1818; and completed the building, with only slight modifications of Latrobe's master plan, in 1830. Under Bullfinch in 1825, a plan was devised for imposing order on the Capitol grounds, & it was carried out for almost 15 years. The plan divided the area into flat, rectangular grassy areas bordered by trees, flower beds, & gravel walks. The growth of the trees, however, soon deprived the other plantings of nourishment, & the design became increasingly difficult to maintain in light of sporadic & small appropriations.

John Foy, who had charge of the grounds during most of this period, was "superseded for political reasons," & the area was then maintained with little care or forethought. John Foy was dead by 1837, and James Maher took over as the public gardener.  Many rapidly growing but short-lived trees were introduced and soon depleted the soil; a lack of proper pruning and thinning left the majority of the area's vegetation ill-grown, feeble, or dead. strong>

1840 W.H. Bartlett's View of the Capitol at Washington in Nathaniel P. Willis, American Scenery, vol. 1. London Virtue.

By 1837, the Washington Guide reported, The Capitol Square has been enlarged to the west, by taking in that part of the Mall extending from the circular road to First street, west; making about eight acres additional. This space has been properly graded and planted with trees and shrubs by Mr. James Maher, the public gardener:—the other part of the square was planted by the late John Foy, a man of excellent talents and taste. A good substantial stone wall, surmounted by an iron-railing, surrounds the whole square. When the walks are completed, and the water-fountains arranged, this square will afford the most beautiful and healthful walks: a subject well deserving public attention.

1839 South Gateway of the Capitol at Washington, D.C. showing stone walls & iron rails. Gray and sepia wash drawing by August Kollner (1813-1906).

Daguerreotype by John C. Plumbe, Jr., taken about 1846, is the earliest known photographic image of the Capitol. Library of Congress.

In 1874, Congress passed an act making Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) the first landscape architect of the United States Capitol. Olmsted accepted the job, wishing to "train the tastes of the nation." The mid-19th-century enlargement of the US Capitol, in which the House & Senate wings & the new dome were added, required that the Capitol grounds be expanded.

John Singer Sargent (American artist, 1856-1925) Frederick Law Olmsted 1895

Olmsted's original concept for the design for the governmental buildings clustered in Washington, DC envisioned a ground plan that united the White House, Capitol &, other government agencies to symbolize the union of the nation, which was still trying to overcome the divisions of the Civil War. In his previous landscape design plans, Olmsted had made architecture less important than its green surroundings. However, for the seat of the legislative branch of the United States of America, Olmsted wanted to make the Capitol building the crowning centerpiece. Olmsted was determined that the grounds should complement the building.

Reflecting on his work, Olmsted recalled: "The most interesting general fact of my life seems to me to be that it was not as a gardener, a florist, a botanist, or one in any way specially interested in plants & flowers, or specially susceptible to their beauty, that I was drawn to my work. The root of all my work has been an early respect for & enjoyment of scenery, & extraordinary opportunities for cultivating susceptibility to its power. I mean not so much grand or sensational scenery as scenery of a more domestic order -- scenery which is to be looked upon contemplatively & is producing of musing moods."

His 15-year-long project on the grounds of the United States Capitol did envision an open setting immediately surrounding the Capitol & a more naturalistic scenery with shrubbery & trees further from the Capitol, nearer to its entrances.  Because of the many streets & entrances merging at the capitol, the creation of a workable circulation system dominated the design process. The east side of the Capitol needed more open spaces for large masses of people gathered for inaugurations & other large events normally held at the East Front. Two large ovals with scattered trees were designed for the east side to accommodate the grounds needed during such events.

Olmsted's 1874 Plan for the US Capitol

Before he could begin to execute his landscape design, the practical Olmsted had to ensure the soil's nutrients. He began by spending $60,000 to improve the soil; level the ground; & add new sewer, gas & water systems.  Work on the grounds began in 1874. Olmsted constructed marble terraces on the north, west, & south sides of the building, thereby "causing it to gain greatly in the supreme qualities of stability, endurance, & repose."

By 1876, gas & water service was completed for the entire grounds, & electrical lamp-lighting was installed. Utilitarian areas such as stables & workshops were removed from the northwest & southwest corners. A streetcar system, quickly replacing the horses from those displaced stables, north & south of the west grounds was relocated farther from the Capitol. The granite & bronze lamp piers & ornamental bronze lamps for the east plaza area were completed  & installed.  Work on the plantings accelerated in 1877.  By this time, according to Olmsted's report, "altogether 7,837 plants & trees [had] been set out." However, not all had survived: hundreds were stolen or destroyed by vandals, &, as Olmsted explained, "a large number of cattle [had] been caught trespassing." Washington DC had not yet lost all of its rural charm.

By 1879, the roads were paved & most of the work on the east side of the grounds was completed. The stone walls on the west side of the grounds were almost finished.  In 1885, an aging Olmsted retired from superintendency of the huge terrace project; but he continued to direct the work on landscaping the grounds until 1889. In 1895, senility forced Olmsted to retire from his lifetime of work.

Arieal view of the United States Capitol. The Capitol Grounds cover approximately 274 acres.

Information on Olmstead from Architect of the Capitol & from Christine Owen US Capitol Historical Society. 

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