(Adds comments from Plotz in paragraphs 13, 14, and 15.)
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Heaps of sandstone and marble from the US Capitol East Front built in the early 19th century have sat in Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Park for nearly 50 years, gathering dust and attracting a steady stream of history enthusiasts. Now the unsanctioned tourist attraction is quietly going away.
Mounds of stone, kept behind a maintenance facility in the park likely since the 1970s, will be moved to a storage facility at Fort Meade in Maryland, where it will not be accessible to the public, a spokesperson for the Architect of the Capitol said. It will take several years to move the large stones, according to a National Park Service official.
The admission came after park officials put a chain-link fence around the ruins but didn’t announce why the fence was there or what would happen to the stones. Officials planned the move since at least early 2020 but didn’t publicly acknowledge the decision until Bloomberg Government asked the agencies in charge of the relocation.
The move will mark the end of an unofficial history exhibit, touted as a hidden treasure in Rock Creek Park by publications including Washingtonian and Atlas Obscura. The stones were removed during Capitol renovations from 1958-62 and kept at the nearby Capitol Power Plant until officials dumped them in the park nearly a half-century ago.
“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 Architect of the Capitol, said in an email. “They are being moved to the AOC’s area at Ft. Meade. The public will not have access to the stones there.”
The National Park Service issued a permit to the Architect of the Capitol, which owns the stones, to remove them, Brian Joyner, deputy superintendent of Rock Creek Park, said in an email. The park is managed by the National Park Service.
The stones “are located in an area that is closed to visitors, who are required to stay on trail at all times in Rock Creek Park,” Joyner said in an email. “The National Park Service fenced the area off in order to protect the safety of park visitors during the removal operation, which will take place over the next several years.”
Joyner didn’t respond to follow-up questions about why the National Park Service wanted the stones moved, but officials appear to have planned the move since at least early 2020. In February 2020, a National Park Service official told the US Capitol Historical Society that the stones would change locations “to ensure the protection of the stones and of visitors who were climbing them,” Jane L. Campbell, the historical society’s president, said in a statement through a spokesperson. That plan was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Architect of the Capitol has a series of storage facilities at Fort Meade that house portions of the Library of Congress’s book collection, as well as artifacts such as the original “Torch of Knowledge” that adorned the top of the Thomas Jefferson Building, according to an AOC blog.
The stones were removed from the East Front of the Capitol when that portion of the building was extended. Neither the Architect of the Capitol nor the National Park Service said how old the stones are, but much of the construction on the building — after it was burned in 1814 — was completed between 1815 and 1826, according to the Architect of the Capitol.
The stones were at the Capitol Power Plant as late as 1972 but were dumped in Rock Creek Park by 1982, according to a Washington Post article published that year. Some of the stones were used to renovate the White House ahead of its 1992 bicentennial, because the Capitol and White House both used sandstone quarried from the same place near Aquia Creek in northern Virginia, giving the materials similar characteristics, the Associated Press reported in 1989.
The original columns from the East Portico, constructed in 1828, eventually received more fanfare. The columns were placed in the National Arboretum in the 1980s after Ethel Garrett and the Friends of the National Arboretum led a campaign to preserve them.
In the last decade, the stones have become a popular place to visit. Part of their appeal is the haphazard placement in the woods and the opportunity for visitors to discover them in an unusual place, David Plotz, CEO of the local news podcast network City Cast and former CEO of Atlas Obscura, said in a Tuesday phone interview.
“The special part is that they’re hidden in Rock Creek Park and the experience of discovery,” Plotz said. “It’s what’s great about exploring a city. And it’s like visiting a Mayan temple or a religious site in that it’s about the experience of it.”
Plotz, who grew up nearby in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington, D.C., said he hadn’t heard of the stones until about 2014. Atlas Obscura and Google Maps helped turn them into a destination, he said. He called the decision to remove them “joyless and pointless and incredibly stupid.”
Officials may find more uses for the stones, including future renovations, though there’s no specific project in the works now, Marshall said.
While locals might be disappointed, it could help preserve the artifacts, Bill Lebovich, an architectural historian and photographer, said in a phone interview. Climbing on the stones probably wouldn’t damage them, but carving initials or chipping off pieces could be a concern, he added.
The stones are important artifacts, but never served much of an educational purpose for casual visitors, Lebovich said. Information about “what part of the building they came from, where they were moved, and why they were moved” could be useful, he said, but Rock Creek Park doesn’t include any of that information.
“They’re more valuable for someone who’s interested in building traditions, building techniques,” Lebovich said. “The stones, the way they’re cut, might possibly provide information on how workmanship was done on stone in the period of the erection of the Capitol. It’s pretty esoteric in my opinion, though.”
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