News & Politics

The Historic Capitol Stones Are Hidden in Plain Sight

All you have to do to find them is poke around Rock Creek Park.

The Capitol stones. Photograph courtesy Bill Lebovich.

Deep in Rock Creek Park, about a half-mile from the nature center and next to a maintenance building, sits one of DC’s most well-known urban myths: the Capitol stones.

It takes only a little venturing off the trail to find these eloquently carved, moss-covered, sandstone-and marble-blocks stacked several feet high and several rows deep. It is believed that many of these stones date back to the 19th century, perhaps as early as 1818. They were once part of the US Capitol, bearing witness to nearly 200 years of American history, though for at least the last 50, they’ve languished in obscurity in Rock Creek Park.

The story starts in 1958 with Architect of the Capitol J. George Stewart overseeing a Capitol Building renovation. As a former, one-term member of Congress from Delaware and not a trained architect, Stewart’s appointment in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower was met with skepticism. So, when Stewart pushed for an extension and renovations on the east façade to create additional office space and a new subway terminal, many opposed the plan citing the historical importance of the façade and Stewart’s apparent inexperience. But Speaker House Sam Rayburn had Stewart’s back, and strongly supported the construction.

Demolition started in 1958 and continued into early 1959, with the East Front being dismantled and the portico being removed. The columns that had stood since Andrew Jackson’s inauguration were sent to the Capitol Power Plant. In 1987, they were relocated again to the National Arboretum, where they still stand today.

Other elements of the original east façade were not treated with the same deference. According to historian William C. Allen’s definitive book History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction and Politics, they were “stored at a facility operated by the National Park Service.” In 2009, Washington City Paper reported the slabs were piled up in Rock Creek Park.

Bill Lebovich, an architecture historian, agrees these stones hold immense historical value, not only for where they were located but the methods used to create them.

“There’s the history of 19th-century stone construction on display there,” he tells Washingtonian. “How they removed the blocks from the quarry, you can see that in the grooves. You can see the beautiful Cornish details. The stones provide rather pristine examples from two hundred years ago.”

While the stones’ composition is interesting, their ownership might be even more fascinating. While the stones are on National Park Service land, it is unclear who maintains them. Further digging and reporting have been unsuccessful in figuring out who has claimed official ownership of the stones, the Architect of the Capitol or the National Park Service. Visiting the pile today, there seems to be evidence of recent usage, including modern plastic grates and stones that look newer.

“Some of those stones are pretty damn pristine,” Lebovich says. “Assuming everything there is coming from the Architect of the Capitol, there were and continue to be other buildings that are being renovated … some of the Senate and House buildings.” He also says that renovations on the Capitol’s west façade over the years also likely added stones to the pile.

While off-the-record conversations with the associated government agencies have revealed that visiting the Capitol stones in Rock Creek Park is not encouraged due to “safety reasons,” no one would go on record to say whether it is trespassing. (There is no signage indicating that.) “If there is a policy, they haven’t adequately stated it,” Lebovich says.

The Capitol stones in Rock Creek Park provide a rare chance to see this kind of history up close. If you do go exploring, go with caution, discretion, and respect.

While there are still questions, what isn’t disputed is that one of the District’s greatest urban myths is real, sitting in stone silence but in plain sight.

Matt Blitz is the head of the Obscura Society D.C., the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura. He writes about discovering the world’s mysteries for Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Washingtonian.