What Would Olmsted Do? A Tour of the Capitol Grounds

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This is the 12th year of Casey Trees and Montgomery County Parks department annual gathering, which includes a day of lectures and talks from arborists and research scientists from around the world and includes two to three field trips.

One of the less noticed and appreciated natural treasures of Capitol Hill is the wonderful array of trees on the Capitol grounds. On September 15, 2023, as part of Casey Trees’ Urban Tree Summit, Jim Kaufmann, Director of the Capitol Grounds and Arboretum staff, led a very informative tour of the grounds for the group of arborists, park staff, gardeners, landscapers, and interested tree advocates. 

Throughout the nearly three-hour tour, Capitol Grounds and Arboretum staff shared details about the history of the 286-acre grounds. They also offered horticultural tips from their day-to-day work keeping the grounds and trees looking their best.

Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted

The Capitol grounds were designed in 1874 by the renowned landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmsted.  He is often called the father of American landscape architecture.  Central Park in New York City is his best-known legacy, but over his career he designed 100 public parks and recreation grounds.  Here in DC, in addition to the Capitol grounds, Olmsted drew up plans for the National Zoo.  Gallaudet University is one of many campuses to have been touched by the famous landscaper, along with Duke, Sewanee, Colby, and Harvard. 

The original grounds plan by Frederik Olmsted focused on the entry ways to the Capitol Building. This is one of the entries from the west side of the Capitol grounds.

At the time Olmsted worked on the Capitol Grounds, they only covered 50 acres, so his visions to create a park were abandoned. He instead concentrated on featuring the Capitol building by grouping trees and shrubs to frame the beauty of the building. “Twenty-one streets touched the Capitol grounds, with forty-six entrances for both pedestrians and carriages,”  according to the United States Capitol Historical Society. Olmsted wanted the Capitol building to always be the focus.

His plans are still the blueprint for the Capitol Grounds and there are special efforts to restore the grounds, trees, and even buildings, like the “summer house” at the bottom of Capitol Hill to the original plan.  Kauffman says the first thought any of the staff has when confronting maintenance of the grounds is “What would Olmsted do with this situation?” 

Today’s Capitol Grounds and Arboretum Staff

Kauffman directs a staff of 80 professional arborists, landscapers, turf specialists, gardeners, and a PhD entomologist.  He is very proud that, in the past few years, more professionals have been brought into the care of the Capitol grounds.  The staff cares for over 4,600 trees, some dating back to Olmsted. In January 2022, the Capitol achieved accreditation as a level III arboretum. Among the nation’s 504 accredited arboreta, it is just one of 40 that have attained this level of recognition. Jim says that having such status really helps in long term planning and provides many educational opportunities for the staff to interact with the public and members of Congress.

Memorial trees are found throughout the 286-acre campus.
This chestnut oak was planted in 1949 to honor Senator Thomas P. Gore from Oklahoma.

The mission of the staff is to serve, preserve, and inspire. Four million visitors come to the Capitol grounds each year. The hard-working staff strives to make sure the grounds look beautiful and inviting, while preserving the history of many of the original trees, as well as caring for the hardscape of sidewalks, walls, and the large turf area on the west side of the Capitol.  Besides the day-to-day work, the Capitol Grounds support the Inaugural every four years and three to four large concerts every year like the Memorial Day and Fourth of July concerts.

The compacted soil of the Capitol grounds is one of the challenges confronted by the staff. They work very hard to find ways to improve the soil, and deal with issues like storm water runoff.  The turf specialists have turned to their colleagues in the sports world for advice. On the west side of the Capitol (where the concerts are performed), they are planting a Bermuda-like grass commonly known as Tahoma 31. The cultivar was developed at Oklahoma State University and is used at many golf courses and sports fields. The Capitol grounds staff report that they will be putting this grass in other areas of the Capitol in the future. 

Memorial and Famous Trees

The Capitol’s trees cover a wide array of tree types. Some like the Sequoia Redwoods are not in the friendliest climate, and they are showing it. As trees need to be replaced, the staff tries to choose native tree specimens. But there are other considerations including special requests when it is a memorial tree. It takes an act of Congress for a memorial tree to be planted on the grounds. It is a very lengthy process, but it does happen.  An example of a memorial tree is the Anne Frank Tree. It was grown from a sampling of the original horse chestnut tree that grew behind the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.  Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz sponsored the planting of one of the 13 saplings on the House side of the U.S. Capitol’s West Front and on April 30, 2014, there was a ceremony in National Statuary Hall dedicating the tree.

Jim Kaufmann, Director of the Capitol Grounds and Arboretum staff, has 25 years of public gardens and professional grounds management experience. He led the tour of the grounds for the Casey Tree Summit field trip in late September.

There are a couple of flowering cherry trees on the west side that are believed to be part of the 1912 original shipment of trees from Yokoyama, Japan.  Other trees from this original shipment are preserved around the Jefferson Memorial’s tidal basin, as well as at the United States National Arboretum.  On the east side, there are five crab apple trees planted to remember the five Sullivan brothers who died when the U.S.S. Juneau was sunk in 1942 during World War II. After the tragedy there were efforts to pass a law prohibiting siblings and family members from serving together in combat zones, but it never passed. Today’s policy of the Department of Defense provides opportunities for service members to transfer under these circumstances.

The Public Is Welcome to Use the Grounds

Kauffman is very happy that the grounds are open to the public and many visitors come every day. In the two oval grassy areas on the east side of the Capitol, he says there are often local Hill residents enjoying recreational time by picnicking or walking their dogs. He says there are three laws that prohibit certain activities. First you cannot cut down any tree; second, you cannot sleep or lay down on the grounds, and three, no sports.  But Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton has always gained permission for Hill kids and families to use the snow-covered ground for sledding, which is very much a tradition of Hill life, and is an exception to the rule.

There are many ways to learn more about the trees and grounds of the Capitol.

You can download the free Capitol Grounds and Arboretum app and it will provide you with a tour of all the trees, as well as history and natural information. There is a very informative map and brochure called, Explore, highlights and map of the U.S. Capitol Grounds that is available from the Architects’ office. Using your GPS to identify a tree will also net you great information.  If you go to www.aoc.gov and find the Office of Operations, https://www.aoc.gov/about-us/organizational-structure/office-chief-operations, you can direct questions to the Capitol Grounds and Arboretum staff.

The Capitol grounds are a great public space for all to enjoy, and a real treasure for us locals.

Rindy O’Brien finds the Capitol grounds a great place to go for outdoor solace. To contact Rindy, rindyobrien@gmail.com  

An earlier version of this story misspelled Olmsted. The Hill Rag regrets the error.