A hidden gem

The Capitol might be one of the most visited and admired spots in all of Washington, but most tourists and, even some lawmakers, are unaware of a hidden gem on its grounds.

Nestled into the sloping hillside of the West Front lawn sits Summerhouse, a brick building complete with a fountain and grotto that has provided a respite to weary travelers for more than a hundred years.

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“The Summerhouse was built in 1879-1880 to provide a cool retreat where visitors might have a drink of water and rest,” Architect of the Capitol (AoC) spokeswoman Eva Malecki wrote in an email to The Hill.

Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted — the planner of New York City’s Central Park, who is widely regarded as the founder of American landscape architecture — Summerhouse was constructed to blend seamlessly into the Capitol grounds.

Located among the paths that lead from Pennsylvania Avenue to the Senate side of the Capitol campus, the building is cleverly concealed by vegetation, including ivy planted personally by Olmsted.

Designed to “surprise and delight,” Summerhouse is set into the ground both to merge with its surroundings and to help keep it cool, Malecki said. Built as an open hexagon, its red bricks have been laid in geometric patterns to create a basket-weave design.

Inside, stone benches surround a central fountain that originally provided drinking water piped in from a spring. Now purely decorative, the fountain has been flanked by three drinking fountains to sate thirsty visitors.

Three arched doorways fitted with ornate wrought-iron gates afford guests views of the Capitol as well as across the West Lawn toward the National Mall. But one particular vantage point within Summerhouse provides the most pleasant sight of all.

Situated above a row of benches is a window overlooking a small grotto, complete with rocks, plants and a stream. The soothing, peaceful sounds of the running water are another unexpected and lovely surprise, much like Summerhouse itself.

“I’ve never noticed this before,” Milwaukee native Therese Mance said on a visit to the Summerhouse. “It’s beautiful … a cool place, especially in this D.C. weather.”

Visiting Summerhouse on her fifth-grade school field trip, Sophonie Calixte agreed.

“When it’s a really hot day, the water is really fresh,” the 10-year-old from Lancaster, Pa., said, expressing the sentiments of many a Washington tourist. “You can relax and feel the cool breeze come to your face.”

Maintaining the tranquility and beauty of Summerhouse has been a priority for the AoC.

In fiscal 2009, a Summerhouse stabilization project to address critical preservation issues was completed, Malecki said. The work included partial restoration of the roof and surrounding brick structure to make the building watertight, and the building now also contains some sustainable design elements, including rooftop planters. 

And the AoC’s efforts to preserve this Capitol treasure have not gone unnoticed. While many might not be aware of Summerhouse, those who do discover it express appreciation for its historic charm.

It’s “wonderful,” said Clementine Van Egmond, a visitor from the Netherlands. “A lot of Americans don’t have history like Europe has. … It’s good that this remains.”

Becki Steinberg contributed to this article.