This year I took my first-ever trip to Washington, D.C., staying at The Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. I felt this was a great location to stay because I could easily walk to the National Mall, The Capitol, or hop on the Metro at Union Station. But on the first day, I decided to take a walk. I did what so many other people have probably done thousands upon thousands of times: I walked down New Jersey Avenue, crossed Constitution, and found myself at the outer perimeter of the United States Capitol. As I walked around the jogging, biking, walking footpath I came across something odd: a small brick structure, half sunken into the Earth, surrounded by natural beauty and a peaceful grotto. I had accidentally found one of Washington’s best hidden gems: The Summerhouse.
The Summerhouse sits on the West Front lawn of the U.S. Capitol near the intersection of New Jersey and Constitution Avenues. In 1874, Frederick Law Olmsted was appointed by the Congress to develop and improve the expanding grounds of the U.S. Capitol. As he took on the task of developing a pleasing design, he took into account complaints from people who stated they had no place to get water or rest after traveling to the Capitol.
Construction began on The Summerhouse in 1879 and was completed somewhere between late 1880 and early 1881. According to several letters Olmsted wrote during the time, he was very active in the design and construction of The Summerhouse. He wanted something to provide a cool place to rest, fresh water to drink, but also something that did not detract from the landscape. He original plans included two Summerhouses, but the second was never completed after objections from the Congress.
A water fountain serves as the centerpiece for The Summerhouse. When it was first constructed, the water was drawn from a nearby cold water spring. Today, however, the drinking water comes from the filtered city water supply. The water fountain centerpiece now serves as a beautiful, but purely decorative, feature of The Summerhouse.
The Summerhouse is built from red bricks and sits about 3′ feet deep in the ground. Three doorways offer easy access to the area with enough room inside for a large group of people. Stone benches provide a place for people to rest, making The Summerhouse just as useful today as it was over a hundred years ago. On the western wall you can enjoy the sounds of a grotto as water trickles across exposed rocks. The drinking fountains, though I’m certain are not original, work perfectly fine with cool, filtered water to enjoy.
Over one hundred years since the original construction, The Summerhouse still provides for the people to this day. Anyone walking the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on a hot summer day will enjoy a few moments (or an entire hour like I did) sitting on the cool stone benches and filling your water bottle. It is a beautiful hidden gem, nestled in a sloping hill surrounded by beautiful landscaping, almost unnoticed. In fact, as I walked out of The Summerhouse I noticed a family of four stop, stare, and ask if this was something they could enter. Most people don’t know this exists, but now that you’ve read this I suggest you go find it and enjoy a cold drink of water.