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Capitol Stones’ Removal From Rock Creek Park Drawing Crowds

September 21, 2022 by Kate Michael
Capitol Stones’ Removal From Rock Creek Park Drawing Crowds
(Photo via Architect of the Capital)

WASHINGTON — Tourists and locals wandering through Rock Creek Park for decades have happened upon enormous piles of stones covered in moss that appeared to have been haphazardly dumped in the middle of the woods and abandoned — and rumor had it these stones were once part of the U.S. Capitol.

Well, this stuff of lore is actually true. The stones, an unsanctioned tourist attraction in Rock Creek Park, were literally the building blocks of American history. But it took ephemera to make the historic treasure hunt so popular. 

Featured in Atlas Obscura and even plotted on Google Maps, expeditioners have shared about their adventures surrounding this hidden-in-plain-site memorial for years. Reviews have said it “feels like a very cool graveyard of the past” or called it “a place to see a bit of history off the beaten path.” 

But only now that the stones are being removed is there any call to secure them in place or create landmark signage explaining their origin and importance. 

Originally part of the Capitol’s eastern façade, the stones were — controversially — removed during the 1958-1962 renovation of the Capitol under Architect of the Capitol J. George Stewart, a one-term congressman from Delaware, but not an actual architect with any formal training. Under Stewart’s direction, as well as the Commission for the Extension of the Capitol, headed by House Speaker Sam Rayburn, sandstone was to be replaced with the granite that is now on the building.

Hundreds of blocks were removed, including the original Capitol columns, yet since many of these materials had been part of the historic first building of the Capitol as far back as 1815, everything was cataloged and saved. 

According to a 2016 post on the Architect of the Capitol blog, which quotes a Washington Post article of the time, the “eventual disposition of the dismantled portions [was] to be determined [at a later date] by the Commission for [the] Extension of the Capitol,” with suggestions for their use including donations to the Smithsonian or the construction of a new museum.

Without a plan, and with marble taking over as a first choice building material, the stones and other portions of the Capitol were taken to be held at the Capitol Power Plant, a storage area of sorts, where they sat until 1975. Their governing body, the Commission for the Extension of the Capitol, had long since ceased to exist.

Benefactors of the National Arboretum collaborated to have the columns and a foundation made from the former Capitol steps relocated to a hill on arboretum grounds overlooking a meadow, but the remaining stones were later placed behind a maintenance structure on an unmarked trail in Rock Creek Park and left to be dealt with at a later time.

And that time is now. 

Like many who decided to take on projects during the pandemic, the National Park Service got to work cleaning up its maintenance areas in Rock Creek Park (though the decision to do so actually did come before March 2020).

By late Spring of that year, trail hikers noted that a chain link fence was erected surrounding the stones, which previously had no restricted access or visible signage.

And that’s when a site long taken for granted became a rallying cry. 

The NPS admitted that it had plans to remove the stones, citing safety concerns including that the moss covering the stones created a climbing hazard. 

“The stones are being moved at the request of the National Park Service for safety, realignment and preservation purposes,” Kiren Marshall, senior communications specialist for the AOC admitted in an email to Bloomberg Government

The AOC intends to store the stones in a facility in Fort Meade, where they will be better preserved, but where the public will have no access to them. Other items stored at the same facility include portions of the Library of Congress book collection, the Torch of Knowledge flame that sat atop the Thomas Jefferson Building, and the Botanic Gardens’ Frosty the Snowman (in the offseason).  

Remarkably, this storage area already housed a sculpture that was removed from the Capitol’s East Front at the same time the other stones were removed. 

But Washington, D.C., Democratic delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, some frequent visitors to the stones, and undoubtedly many who have yet to find and visit this unofficial historic monument are upset that the off-the-beaten-path landmark is being taken away. 

“The stones have been in Rock Creek Park for almost 50 years while causing no harm,” Norton said, according to a release from her office explaining how she met with and asked that the NPS devise a plan to keep “at least two or three of the stones” in Rock Creek Park and to install signage nearby detailing their history and significance. 

It appears that the AOC and the NPS will comply with the request, though how many and which stones are to remain is still unclear.

“While I prefer that all Capitol Stones remain in Rock Creek Park, I am pleased that NPS and AOC committed to keep some of the stones [there],” Norton said. 

Moving the mass of sandstone will not happen overnight, but will actually take several years during which time the public has been advised to avoid the area. However, the dispute has actually made what was once a semi-secret and neglected place more popular than ever.

The AOC and the NPS also contend that the stones were never abandoned. The U.S. Capitol Historical Society has cut up some stones to sell as bookends, and the AOC blog claims many have been used for small restoration jobs at the Capitol and the White House. 

There is no specific project for their future use. 

Kate can be reached at kate@thewellnews.com

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