This piece originally ran on July 22, 2014. We’re republishing it on Columbus Day because Jonny Grave ‘discovered’ something that’s been there for a long time. -ed.
By Jonny Grave
Deep in the heart of Rock Creek Park are piles of stones. Carefully arranged, but curiously abandoned, they are stacked up in rows ten feet tall. Moss and lichen have moved into the cracks and trees flourish around the borders. This is a hidden place, well off any beaten path in the woods. What’s strange about these expertly carved stones is that they deserve far more fanfare than woods have afforded them over the past half-century. These stones are from the East Portico of the United States Capitol.
It takes very little to uncover the origin of the stones in the woods– The twelve Corinthian columns from the Capitol, which are erected on a rolling meadow in the National Arboretum, are described as part of the 1828 construction of the Capitol building, then dismantled and expanded in 1958. They were carved and laid by slaves. They saw hundreds of members of Congress, thousands of federal employees and lawmakers, and the inauguration of every US president from Jackson to Eisenhower. The plaque at the Arboretum explains that the remainder of the portico is stored at a site in Rock Creek Park. The flagstones making up the floor of the new structure in the Arboretum bear the same markings as the stones in the woods. The stones gathering moss in the woods are undoubtedly the very foundation of East Portico.
I made the trek out to the woods on an oppressively humid Sunday afternoon. I figured the National Park Service maintenance workers were not likely to be around. The site is fairly deep in the woods– far enough away from the cars, sirens, and people of the thriving city I call home. This is not the first time I’ve visited this place. My first venture to the stones was with my family in late December of last year. My mother told me she found the site by accident, and I didn’t believe her until I saw it.
Stacks of sandstone, heaps of granite, and the odd pile of slate are all neatly arranged at the foot of a rolling hill, in the middle of the woods, with not a single plaque to tell anyone passing by the history of these mighty stones. Some of these must be part of the original construction that survived the Burning of Washington in 1814 (for more on that war, please read Hidden in Plain Sight: The Francis Scott Key Bridge). These stones have been part of the backdrop of the United States’ legislative branch from our meager beginnings as a fledgling nation, to the birth of our space program. Over a century’s worth of American history, and they’re sitting in the woods to gather moss.
But what puts a very curious spin on the site is its exact location in the woods. The rolling hill adjacent to the stacks of stones is dotted with 14-foot-deep holes. The holes go straight down into the soil, and are lined by stacks of rocks without mortar in the cracks. These rocks look to be at least fifty years older than the granite blocks from the Capitol, given the amount of weathering alone. Although no one at the Rock Creek Conservancy could tell me the origin of the holes, they were almost certainly at the site well before J. George Steward led the expansion of the Capitol.
There are scores of settlements in Rock Creek, showing signs of families and farmers living in the valleys of woods in the middle of the city. The Sarah Whitby Site, uncovered by the National Park Service, shows that this land was far from empty when the land was established as a park by Congress in 1890. The holes on the slope near the Capitol stones may be part of an early settlement in the park, or possibly a place to stash munitions during the Civil War. No conclusive answer has been found. Surely, the workers arranging stones from the portico must have noticed the shallow wells dug into the hill. Stewart was the one who made the agreement with the National Park Service to store the stones in the woods– could he have known about an early settlement at that site? It seems some things are lost to history.
This lost connection to the past might be what attracts people to the site. There is quiet reverence here. Some of the visitors have taken to retrieving balusters from the stone yard, and arranging them on one particularly high stack of sandstone. The result resembles an altar, or a row of busts in the halls of a Roman temple. It is ironic that the Corinthian columns from the portico were arranged to resemble Persepolis, where the rest of the stones now look like an East-coast US version of Ta Prohm.
I promised my mother that if I were to ever write about this place, I would not divulge the location of the stones, other than it being in the depths of Rock Creek Park.
I also promised her that I would humbly ask anyone reading to please take nothing but photos, and leave nothing but footprints.