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Capitol Square

Civic Sites, Campuses & Institutions

Capitol Square
Washington, DC

Heritage Landscapes was the preservation landscape architect for an interdisciplinary team working with the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) to develop the Capitol Square Cultural Landscape Report (CLR). This thorough, research-based CLR documents the history, evolution, existing conditions, and analysis of significance and integrity of these iconic cultural landscapes. Heritage Landscapes, with the team, is developing landscape interpretation and treatment guidelines based on the findings presented in the CLR, utilized to inform recommendations for appropriate long-term landscape stewardship. The Capitol Square CLR project, the first CLR for the AOC, will be finalized in 2011.

For the Capitol Square CLR effort, archival and onsite investigations at numerous relevant locations gathered documentation on landscape origins, advocacy, evolution, character, and features as Capitol Square evolved between 1791 and today. Heritage Landscapes’ detailed study documents evolution and recommended landscape preservation treatment for the approximately 59 acres surrounding the U.S. Capitol building in the heart of our nation. For this detailed study, the overarching finding is that the most comprehensive and lasting design effort for the Capitol Grounds and Terrace is their design and construcion under the direction of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. between 1874 and 1894. Olmsted’s tenure frames the period of significance. In the CLR, Olmsted’s overarching design ideas are identified as: plan symmetry; apparent spatial enlargement; 3 character areas, East, West, and Terraces; controlled views; open tree shaded lawns contrast with ground plane plantings; and unique Terraces as plinth for the Capitol. The General Plan for and construction of the Capitol Terraces represent one of Olmsted’s last major projects undertaken during his career. Over the 20th century, a range of alterations from incremental changes to incursions during construction projects affected the Capitol Square landscape.

Applying intensive research findings and the evaluation of landscape integrity and historic significance establishes a clear basis for future stewardship. Heritage Landscapes worked with the project team and the client to develop a preservation treatment philosophy and provide treatment recommendation for managing the historic landscape. Landscape treatment is based on: preservation and management objectives of the site as a whole; period of significance; historic integrity to Olmsted as-built character; and current condition of individual features. Incremental recapture will address walks and drives, walls, turf and soils, trees, shrubs, and ground plane plantings. For example, of 900 Olmsted 1894 trees only 66 trees remain. Replanting is proposed to coincide with both the Olmsted original tree collection and the memorial tree planting policy to reinstate the trees accurately over future decades. The Capitol Square CLR guides the Capitol Grounds back toward the character of the completed, well-documented Olmsted design while current changes in use, the hosting of large events, high levels of daily visitation, security requirements, utility systems, and other needs, are effectively accommodated.


Architect of the Capitol, U.S. Capitol Grounds Division

Capitol Square Cultural Landscape Report, 2011

Project Credits:
Heritage Landscapes, Preservation Landscape Architects & Planners, team lead VITETTA