Sign up for our free newsletter
An attorney and an architectural historian from Chevy Chase, Md., walked down a worn path on a recent spring day in Rock Creek Park to take a look at a historical site. Before long, they were joined by representatives of the National Park Service.
Their encounter was not a typical “Hey, how are you folks doing today?” interaction with ranger-types.
“They walked us out of here,” says Bill Lebovich, the architectural historian and photographer. “They were very clear about it.”
The men had arrived at a spot in the park not widely known. There, behind some construction equipment and stacks of rusted picnic tables, is the U.S. Capitol—parts of it, anyway. The stone pieces covered in moss and rotting limbs have been sitting there since 1959, not quite dumped but not quite preserved, either.
According to Eva Malecki, spokesperson for the Architect of the Capitol, they were part of what was torn down during a renovation that started in 1958 and ended in 1962. The pieces, mostly sandstone and some marble from the east front façade, likely originate from the rebuilding that occurred after the Capitol was nearly burned down in the War of 1812. Instead of reusing the pieces, they were placed in this part of Rock Creek Park per an agreement with then-Architect of the Capitol J. George Stewart and the National Park Service (NPS), Malecki says.
Among the stones are several carved with letters and numbers, clues to reassemble this section should it ever be moved. Also visible: stones with characteristic “egg and dart” molding atop a row of a design element called “dentils”—“like your teeth,” says Lebovich.
Lebovich, who has authored and photographed several features for Architecture Week, was pulled to the site by Josh Bowers, the attorney, through his neighborhood Listserv.
Bowers, a Civil War buff, came across the Capitol pieces first and later stumbled upon a literally deeper mystery—seven holes dug into the ground and encased in rocks, resembling water wells. They are clearly part of another, separate structure that looks like it was there before the Capitol stones’ deposit, but as far as dedicated researchers can tell, there is no record of what they are or why they’re there.
One thing that Bowers does know: The holes aren’t a good spot for children.
In early March, Bowers and his 7-year-old son, Noah, were out for a walk and looking for a Civil War trench. They came upon the piles of stones, and Bowers, having recently read The Dangerous Book for Boys, thought it was not a bad place for his son to explore.
A play date was set. Noah and a friend of his were climbing up and around the pieces of the Capitol when Bowers looked down and noticed the holes, later measured to be about 14 feet deep. Noah came close to falling in one. Once that catastrophe had been averted, Bowers’ curiosity sent him on a quest.
He’s consulted old maps, old documents, and the Internet, of course. When he contacted several people within the park service—including experts in the history of Rock Creek Park—no one could find records or even conclusive theories about the old stone structures. When he realized he needed someone else to help him do the research, preferably someone with an architectural background, he hopped on the Listserv and found Lebovich, who happens to live three doors down.
Lebovich, vaguely aware of the Capitol stones in the park, was intrigued by Bowers’ claim of an undocumented site. He saw enough before the unexplained NPS intervention to remain curious.
Gary Scott, the chief historian for the National Capital Region of NPS, is not yet convinced the men are on to some great find. Although contacted by Lebovich, he has not gone to the site to inspect the structures himself. “However, members of our staff who have looked at the site recently report not finding evidence of anything other than a dismantled stoneyard,” he writes. “We have not done research to substantiate the assertion that any of the stones represent anything other than the stoneyard which has been there for years.”
Scott says he is aware that the Capitol pieces are the property of the Architect of the Capitol and are occasionally used in renovations and repair work of federal buildings. It was his understanding that the pieces were fenced off.
When informed there was no fence, Scott said the pieces “are protected by virtue of being in the middle of Rock Creek Park.”
The area, however, is easily accessible to the public. There’s convenient parking at the nature center or stables, with a path leading from the stables’ lot. It’s conceivable that someone industrious and furtive could, with some planning, cart out the stones from the post-1812 U.S. Capitol for their home landscaping project. A friend of Bowers’ suggested as much, he says. He discouraged her.
On a recent visit with Bowers, his son, and Lebovich, park employees paid little attention. Noah again clambered over the old Capitol and he, again, came too close to the edge of one of the mysterious holes. “Noah, if you fall in there, that would be the saddest day of my life,” Bowers said as his son backed off.
Bowers has heard a few plausible suggestions for the purpose of the holes: munitions storage is one, since there are several Civil War trenches and Fort DeRussy, which played a role in the Valley Campaigns of 1864, nearby. Before we trekked out to the site, Bowers opened a map book on the trunk of his car that shows the locations of old homes, trenches, forts—although the map in the book is a reprinting of one from the late 19th century, it’s pretty complete. There’s nothing on the spot with the wells.
What’s clear is they are probably not wells. They’re too shallow and “nobody is digging wells side-by-side,” says Bowers. Bowers at one point thought the site might be a lime kiln, but rejected that theory once he realized there was no evidence of scorching. Others he’s consulted have suggested the pits were used for cold storage or that they are elaborate landscaping elements. None of these theories are completely satisfactory, however.
“These stones aren’t here randomly,” says Bowers, “yet no one can find any record of a structure at this site.”
Lebovich has some ideas. He’s done a good deal of research into the Works Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, Depression-era programs to employ the unemployed. The stonework at this site resembles the stonework done by the CCC at the barbecue pits throughout Rock Creek Park, he says.
“I think this was a make-work project of the WPA,” he continues. The barbecue pits have mortar—whereas the seven holes at the site do not—and the pits are “nothing to this scale,” but he posits, “maybe this was where [the workers] were trained.”
Lebovich, however, has also come up blank on proving this and other theories. He’s consulted the National Archives and has been in touch with curators at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Mass. (The Olmsteds, famous landscape architects, were involved in both the planning of Rock Creek Park and the redesign of the Capitol grounds.)
While the search for the history of the site continues, it also continues to play a role in modern events.
On April 5, a local artist used the area for a sound installation project. Layne Garrett, half of the experimental sound duo Cutest Puppy in the World, put out a call for “nature lovers, urban decay aficionados, audio enthusiasts, [and] children” to meet him at the site for a “large-scale tape loop intervention.”
Garrett bought a bunch of answering-machine cassettes with 30-second loops off of eBay and sent around a lyrical and cryptic message about the Rock Creek site, one of his favorite in D.C.
“It was put here for me,” the message said in part. “Unknown refuse, dis-carded and re-arranged. Public ruin, magical beautiful land-fill. Building? Bridge? Monument? Dis-assembled and re-ordered.”
About 60 people met him at the site on that Sunday to participate in the installation. Garrett estimates about 50 more came to watch.
Blogger Chester Hawkins, who’s been writing the Intangible Arts site since 2005, covered it. He described participants placing boom boxes, toy karaoke machines, Walkmans attached to speakers, and iPod decks throughout the Capitol “ruins.” Photographs show people down in the wells rigging up their sound machines.
“As more participants arrived, embedding their sounds into the environment, a curious audio salad began to form,” Hawkins wrote. “Seeping out of the rocks were the melancholy notes of a piano.…The squealing laughter of an infant. The textured noodling of a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Voices. Breathing. Static. Echoes.”
In other words, it was all very cool. “It was kind of a genius idea on Layne Garrett’s part, with that location,” says Hawkins. He wasn’t aware the site was home to some historical holes, although he had heard about the pieces of the Capitol from Garrett. “I had to look that up,” he says, “and trust what Google gave me.”