Olmsted_PlanTHUMB2Olmsted's 1875 Capitol Grounds Plan
1019THUMBThe U.S. Capitol Grounds
Aerial_photo_from_AOC_office_8-19-08Aerial Photo of the U.S. Capitol Grounds
63259_Summerhouse_fountain_1992Summerhouse fountain
63258_Summerhouse_THUMBSummerhouse entrance
4042Capitol Visitor Center entrance
NAOP_Capitol_Grounds_Brochure_coverThe United States Capitol Grounds Brochure
4032Stairs to Capitol Visitor Center

U.S. Capitol Grounds, Washington, DC


March 2011
Since February 2010, NAOP has participated in a review and advisory capacity in the creation of a Cultural Landscape Report for the Olmsted-designed U.S. Capitol Grounds by the Architect of the Capitol (AOC). NAOP applauds the AOC’s efforts and commitment to studying the history, significance, past and current conditions of this historically significant landscape and hopes that, when completed, the Cultural Landscape Report will be the basis for the restoration and lasting preservation of the Olmsted-designed U.S. Capitol Grounds.

April 2009
The United States Capitol Visitor Center—Changes to the Olmsted Landscape
NAOP trustees toured the grounds of the U.S. Capitol during the spring board meeting in Washington, DC, March 30-31, 2009. Led by Ted Bechtol, Superintendent of Grounds, Olmsted scholar Charles Beveridge, and Steve Livengood from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, trustees reviewed the impact of the new Capitol Visitor Center on the historic Olmsted-designed landscape.

Following six years of construction, the Visitor Center opened on December 2, 2008. Built beneath the Olmsted-designed grounds, the 580,000 sq ft building is the largest addition to the Capitol since Congress commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted in 1874 to develop a comprehensive landscape plan for the Capitol grounds. Describing his plan in a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune in 1874, Olmsted wrote:

“The general design is very simple, and will be easily understood.  It has two purposes: First, to provide convenient approaches to and standing room about the Capitol; second, to allow its imposing dimensions and the beauty of its architecture to have due effect…”

The 59-acre site surrounding the Capitol was small for such a large building, with a steep slope and 21 adjoining streets to be integrated. On the eastern section, Olmsted had to also provide access to the House and Senate chambers for arriving carriages, and space for large events and inaugurations. He responded by creating the spacious East Front Plaza and two large ovals of grass and scattered trees, giving a sense of openness while avoiding direct view of the Capitol from the streets. Olmsted extended East Capitol Street straight into the grounds, flanked by multiple rows of tulip poplar trees and, following the curve of the ovals, created entrance roads for street access to the houses of Congress. The overall effect was of a more naturally designed landscaped with open space amid paths passing through shading trees and masses of shrubs that gave obscured views of the Capitol until revealing the full façade of the building.

For the construction of the Visitor Center, large portions of the East Plaza were excavated and the mature tulip poplars removed. To the left and right of the recreated East Capitol Street extension, long sets of stairs now descend to the Visitor Center entrance, lined by two rows of tulip poplars. Two Olmsted-designed curved access roads were replaced with sloping ramps to provide additional visitor center access. Many of the original Olmsted features – historic lanterns, lamp posts and seat walls—were restored and reinstalled in their original locations; and two large Olmsted oval fountains were made operable again.

While providing work space for Congress and enhancing visitor amenities, security and access for millions of people who visit the Capitol each year, the massive scale of the building, steep drop in elevation between the surrounding landscape and the below-ground building entrance, and changes in the plantings significantly alter Olmsted’s original intent for the landscape and visitors’ approach and experience of the Capitol building.

Click here for a video overview of the U.S. Capitol Grounds.

December 2008
NAOP Continues Advocacy for the Capitol Grounds
In time for the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center, NAOP introduced its new CAPITOL GROUNDS BROCHURE during a reception for Capitol Hill staffers and local partners at the Capitol Visitor Center on December 4. In addition, all 540 congressional offices received the brochure and letter introducing NAOP and its advocacy efforts on behalf of the Capitol grounds and the Olmsted legacy nationwide; 4,000 brochures were made available for distribution to constituents nationwide.

In partnership with the U.S. Capitol Historical Society and Cultural Tourism DC, guided walking tours of the Capitol Grounds were offered during WalkingTown, May 30&31, 2009. Join us for the next
Walking Town.

NAOP continues to work closely with the office of the Architect of the Capitol (AOC), which is completing a master plan for the entire 223 acre Capitol Complex. In its November 2007 Landscape and Open Space Framework Plan, the AOC recognizes the need for a “landscape assessment and preservation plan” as “essential to understanding and prioritizing preservation and restoration of the Capitol grounds.” The plan calls for a “Cultural Landscape Plan that details restoration and preservation of Capitol Square [and for integrating] contemporary issues including sustainability and security in a way that minimizes the impacts on the Olmsted landscape.” NAOP hopes to be a partner and a resource in the process of creating a Cultural Landscape Report and, ultimately, in the long-term preservation of the
Capitol grounds.

A New Visitor Guide to the Capitol Grounds
In December 2008, NAOP introduced a new Capitol Grounds Visitor Guide, The United States Capitol Grounds - Frederick Law Olmsted's Legacy in the Nation's Capital, providing an historical  overview of the landscape design. With the brochure - and planned projects including a Capitol Grounds website and audio tour—NAOP hopes to raise awareness and help preserve the Olmsted-designed landscape, introducing Capitol Hill employees, residents and visitors to the beauty, visionary design and historic importance of this treasured work of landscape architecture. DOWNLOAD A COPY OF THE


January 26, 2005
As construction activity continues on the massive U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, NAOP brought together local and national stakeholders to talk about the future of the Capitol's historic landscape and to advocate for its preservation and restoration. "A Design for Democracy: An Olmsted Vision for the U.S. Capitol Grounds, 1874–2005," held June 14th at the National Building Museum, included presentations by renowned Olmsted scholars and longtime friends of NAOP, Charles Beveridge and Arleyn Levee, as well as insightful remarks by Richard Longstreth, professor, George Washington University; David Maloney, deputy state historic preservation officer, Historic Preservation Office (Washington, D.C.); Nellie Longsworth, government affairs consultant and former president of Preservation Action; and Charles Birnbaum, NAOP board member and director of the Historic Landscape Initiative of the National Park Service. Participants included representatives from federal and capital region agencies such as the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, scholars, national organizations including the American Society of Landscape Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and citizen advocates. Representatives of the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) and its consultants were also involved. The AOC is currently preparing a master plan for the entire U.S. Capitol Complex, which consists of the Capitol itself, House and Senate Office Buildings, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. From the beginning of the master planning process, NAOP has been the leading voice for the preservation of the historic Capitol landscape. Although the Center is largely underground, it has precipitated significant changes to the historic design. On January 26, 2005, NAOP met with staff of the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) and representatives from its master plan consultants, HOK and Hargreaves Associates. The meeting offered NAOP an opportunity to make its case for the preservation of the historic Olmsted-designed landscape and for a comprehensive planning approach for the entire U.S. Capitol complex. NAOP also prepared a written statement, "The United States Capitol Complex: An Approach to Preserving and Protecting the Landscape Legacy." In the statement, NAOP urged the AOC to prepare a detailed historic study of the entire complex, develop a statement of philosophy and a program plan against which all design and program elements could be measured, include a conservation plan as part of the final masterplan, and engage the public to the greatest extent possible. Now it is joined in its advocacy by other stakeholder groups. Click here to view the NAOP Work to Preserve U.S. Capitol Ground Gains Momentum document in PDF format.