11 Apr 2016


Lost Capitol Hill: The Capitol Fence

Bulfinch tnA friend (OK, actually The Hill is Home’s own Maria Helena Carey) asked about the odd columns in the National Gallery’s sculpture garden.  Made of dingy sandstone, they match the huts that sit on Constitution Avenue, on the Ellipse, and at the corners of 15th and 17th Streets. As it turns out, these do have a Capitol Hill connection, so here is a look at the Bulfinch fence.

While we today have become accustomed to more and more of our city being behind closed doors, there was actually one time when a fence was removed and a gate opened. In 1874, the grounds around the Capitol were redesigned, and an iron fence that had surrounded it for almost 50 years was removed.

The fence that was removed dated back to 1826, and was designed by Charles Bulfinch (pic), who was Architect of the Capitol at the time. The reason for building the fence was simple: To protect those at work inside, though not, as it would be today, from other humans, but rather from the numerous livestock that roamed Capitol Hill in those days. In fact, the gates that led to the grounds were kept open during the days, allowing free access to all – and some of the grounds were, in fact, for Croquet matches.

The fence and gates as designed by Charles Bulfinch in 1826 (LOC)

The fence and gates as designed by Charles Bulfinch in 1826 (LOC)

According to George Hazelton’s 1914 book The National Capitol: Its Architecture, Art, and History, the nightly closing had its own ritual:

[The gates] recall to the older inhabitants of the District the watchman’s cry about nine o’clock P.M., from the east front of the building: “Close the gates!” The driveway gates were not locked until much later than those to the walks. Congressman, delayed at the Capitol, were often see to pick up a convenient stone and break a lock rather than seek peaceful exit.[1]

The closing of the gate would also occasionally uncover a some tragic tale, such as the one told in the August 14, 1857 Washington Evening Star, when the Capitol policeman in charge of closing the gates

discovered a woman with a child in her arms, hovering about the pool in the east portion of the grounds; she appeared to be waiting for a good opportunity to throw the child into the water, and the officers accordingly took her to the guard room and sent for Captain Dunnington, who came promptly om he spot, and discovered that the child was in a dreadful condition, and so emaciated with disease as to the excite the pity of all. From the mother he ascertained that her husband had left her, some time since, and gone to Chicago, leaving her entirely destitute.

The story did have a (somewhat) happy ending, in that the policemen all chipped in enough to buy her lodging at a local tavern, before she headed for the country, “where she will no doubt find a more comfortable treatment than she has lately received.”

The gates lasted until 1874, when the grounds were given a makeover by Frederick Law Olmstead. The gatehouses were moved to the Ellipse, while some of the stone fenceposts can be seen in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery.


[1] Interestingly, this story seems to have been told here for the first time, and was later embellished with such details as the fact that the cry came at exactly 9 PM, allowing local residents to set their clock to it. It has, therefore, some elements of an Urban Legend – and deserves further inquiry.

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