The Summerhouse is a small, hexagon-shaped brick structure located on the West Front lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building. Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted as part of project to develop and improve the Capitol Grounds. Since being completed in 1881, the Summerhouse has provided a quiet place for visitors to rest, get water, and enjoy the grounds for over a century.
In 1874, Congress appointed Olmsted to develop and improve the Capitol grounds, which was necessary based on additions to the Capitol building and the development of the city. The Summerhouse was included in response to complaints that visitors to the Capitol Building could not find water or a place to rest. Two Summerhouses were originally planned, but congressional objections to the northern Summerhouse prevented completion of a southern one.
The Summerhouse is shaped like an open hexagon and built with red brick. The bricks are laid in geometric and artistic patterns, and curved bricks add to a slightly whimsical atmosphere. Olmsted was concerned that the Summerhouse not intrude upon the Capitol’s landscape, so the building is slightly recessed into the landscape and surrounded with plants.
Access to the Summerhouse is provided by arched doorways, each fitted with wrought-iron gates. Between the doorways are small windows, one of which looks into a small cave-like grotto. In an early nod to environmentalism, the grotto was originally fed with run-off water from fountains further up-hill. Inside the summerhouse, seating for 22 people provides ample area to rest and relax. In the center, a fountain provides a calming atmosphere. The fountain originally provided water for visitors and their horses, but now there are drinking fountains for the same purpose.
The Summerhouse is constructed in the form of an open hexagon. The red brick used for its walls is laid in geometric and artistic patterns, forming volutes and other shapes, and taking on a “basket-weave” texture on the exterior walls on either side of each doorway. Some of the bricks have been carved or shaped to contribute to the design’s overall effect. Arched doorways, each fitted with wrought-iron gates and flanked by small windows, occupy three of the building’s six walls.
Examination of the Olmsted’s original plans for the Summerhouse also reveal that he originally planned the installation of a “carillon.” This device, powered by overflow from the Summerhouse’s central fountain, was to provide soft musical chimes. The carillon never worked properly, however, and was therefore never installed.