Washington Acropolis

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One of the most recent and most impressive monuments in Washington, D.C., is in fact nearly two centuries old. Three miles east of the Capitol, the U.S. National Arboretum’s 444 densely planted acres fall away from Mount Hamilton to open out into a great meadow, and there, silhouetted against a curtain of dark, blue-green beech trees, stands a choir of twenty-two massive sandstone pillars. Mysterious and beautiful, the thirty-foot-high, ten-ton shafts might be some relic of classical antiquity. But they were born right near here, for a while they held up the east front of the Capitol building, and for nearly thirty years they were rubbish.

 

William Thornton’s original 1793 design for the Capitol called for a dozen columns to front the east-central portico. His successor, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, redesigned the east front and doubled the line of columns, but it wasn’t until the 1820s that the stone for them was quarried on a government-owned island in nearby Aquia Creek, Virginia. They went up between 1824 and 1826 and formed a suitably stately backdrop for presidential inaugurations from Jackson to Eisenhower.

In 1958 the Capitol underwent extensive restoration. In the process the columns were removed, examined—and declared too fragile to return to their duty. Instead they were dumped in a plant nursery in southeast Washington and left to molder.

These derelict pillars of history eventually attracted the attention of Ethel S. Garrett, who was prominent in the city’s social and cultural circles. She embarked on what became a twenty-five-year crusade to see the columns properly restored and put on display. The arboretum, founded in 1927 to conduct research on trees and shrubs as well as to educate the public, seemed a natural home for the columns, and a government commission authorized their transfer there in 1973. Even so, it was slow going; it took Garrett eleven years—and the help of Vice President George Bush, whose parents had been friends of her family when he was a child in Washington—to secure the private financing necessary to move them.

 
 

The task of designing the columns’ new setting fell to the English landscape designer Russell Page. His first choice was atop Mount Hamilton, the arboretum’s highest point. But this would have meant the wholesale removal of trees, and in the end he discovered that the great meadow setting would be even more dramatic.

The pillars stand today following Page’s final scheme. Cleaned of thirty-five layers of old white paint and reinforced with eighteen-inch steel pins, twenty-two of them are arranged on a simple stone platform at the crest of a low hill, echoing their original arrangement on the Capitol and very white and strong against their backdrop of seventy-foot-tall beeches.

Marble slabs that were once the steps up the Senate side of the Capitol now are a set of stairs descending from the columns to a reflecting pool. Additional slabs form the floor where Page had thyme planted between the stones, and as visitors step on it, a subtle fragrance rises about them. From a low fountain water trickles across the marble floor via a small canal to spill down a gentle slope to the pool on the lower terrace. Page hoped that the perfume of the thyme and the music of the water would give the viewer a sense of ancient permanence, the impression that the columns had stood there for centuries.

This quiet theatricality works beautifully. Ethel Garrett did not live to see it; she died in 1986, just two months short of the groundbreaking planned for her ninetieth birthday. But she knew what she had brought about, and thanks to her persistence, the parade of columns that looked down as Lincoln called on the better angels of our nature are now gathered together again as a reminder of the links between our history and the antique culture that helped form it.