Hidden in Plain Sight: U.S. Capitol Stoneyard

I have some big travel plans in the works, but until then, I want to spend more time in the city where I live (Washington, D.C.).  You can always be a tourist in your own backyard, and DC makes it easy! One of my first off-the-beaten-track stops was the U.S. Capitol stoneyard.

Rubble in the US Capitol Stoneyard, featuring some of the most decorative pieces
Decorative remains of the original Capitol building

History of the Capitol Stones

A few weekends ago, I learned that in Rock Creek Park, there is a stoneyard of old bricks of the U.S. Capitol building.  Most DC residents know the original Capitol columns are on display at the National Arboretum, but few know what happened to the rest of the East Portico.  The original Capitol building had a copper dome, but when additional offices for the ever-growing Congress were added to either side, it seemed too small.  In the 1850s, the Capitol went in the opposite direction – a multi-level iron dome, topped with the State of Freedom* – the dome we all know and love today.

Early photo of the US Capitol building with its original dome, taken in 1846.
Capitol Building with original dome, 1846
Historic photo of the US Capitol with its new iron dome, taken in the 1950s. Love those vintage cars!
Capitol Building with new iron dome, 1950s

Of course, now that a massive dome topped the original building, the columns on the East Portico were no longer proportional! In the 1950s, work finally begun on replacing the columns and portico.  The original materials were kept, but no one knew quite what to do with them.  In the 1980s, a benefactor pushed for the display of the original columns, and we’re so lucky he did.  The rest of the stones? Dumped in a stoneyard in Rock Creek Park, unmarked, off the beaten track.  Most residents don’t even know they are there.

Walking into the entrance of the US Capitol stoneyard. Note the lack of fences or signs.
Entrance to the Capitol stoneyard

Finding the Capitol Stoneyard

Piecing together clues from other blogs, Andy and I set out and found the Capitol stoneyard ourselves.  A tip: wear closed-toe shoes, because you have to go past the horse barn, and where there’s horses… There was no fence or no trespassing sign.  It reminded me of the temples of Angkor, with its piles of magnificent stones, some overtaken by the forest, and nothing barring you from climbing them if you so desire.  (Not that I recommend that – they are still federal property, and they are not 100% stable.  Be careful if you venture out here!)

Follow the red star to the US Capitol Stoneyard on this map. Wear closed shoes to avoid horse poo!
Follow the red star! Courtesy of RockCreekRunner

*Like many of the historic buildings and monuments of DC, the Statue of Freedom was cast by an enslaved person.  For that matter, so were the US Capitol columns and stones.  One of my next “tourist” stops will hopefully be the brand-new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture, which officially opens to the public September 23, 2016.  I hope they address this fact, so when tourists from all over the country and world visit DC, they have a more complete perspective to balance the grandeur with reality.  If you want to learn more, the DC government has an excellent report on this topic.

This "altar" in the Capitol stoneyard totally fits - the original nickname of the Capitol was Temple of Liberty.
Reminds me of an altar, adding to the temple vibe
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