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U.S. Capitol columns come to high Arboretum hill

Updated on September 5, 2012

One more hidden treasure in Washington, DC

For many years, I passed the sign that said National Arboretum as I whizzed along New York Avenue in northeast Washington. Trees, I have seen, I thought, so I never stopped until I worked in the area. Then it became one of my family’s favorite spots for recreation, relaxing and fun.

Congress established the National Arboretum, administered by the Department of Agriculture, in 1927. Its mission was to further scientific research, to educate the public and to conserve and showcase plants “to enhance the environment,” which I think means that it was supposed to be a pretty attraction.

Capitol columns and reflecting pool
Capitol columns and reflecting pool | Source
 A Capitol capital with Capitol columns in background
A Capitol capital with Capitol columns in background | Source
Columns from herb garden
Columns from herb garden | Source
Cypress tree's roots surface by "frog pond"
Cypress tree's roots surface by "frog pond" | Source


One day I had some time and decided to just drive in to see what the Arboretum looked like. It struck me as an attractively landscaped park—446 acres of it— but not much different from others, until I saw…Greek ruins? No maybe they were Roman, on a hill in a clearing. They reminded me of the Parthenon.

I was confused, not a particularly unique state for me, but this felt as if I had stumbled down the rabbit hole.

I drove slowly to the ruins and got out to explore. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, I was wrong. Mistaken, at least. What I had seen was a handsome arrangement of the original columns removed from the east portico of the U.S. Capitol when it was expanded in 1958. The expansion to correct an imbalance created by completion of the Capitol dome in 1864. The iron dome, much larger than that in the original design, seemed top heavy, so the east side was expanded to create a more balanced appearance.

In the mid 1980s, a landscape designer chose the grassy knoll (a perfectly innocent phrase) on the east side of a 20-acre meadow at the Arboretum. The foundation is made from stones from the Capitol steps that were removed and a small stream of water runs from the columns to a reflecting pool

The columns are set on a foundation of stones from the steps that were on the east side of the Capitol. Old identification marks from the quarry are still visible on some of the stones.

Directly across the meadow, one of the column capitals is set at eye level so that visitors can admire the detail carved in it. It provides an excellent perspective of the columns across the field.

One that got away
One that got away | Source

Frog gigging down by the cypress

Since that first time, I have often returned with my family, specifically for a few favorite spots. When the children were small, they often asked to catch frogs in the small pond near the cypress tree at the tip of the conifer garden.

They never caught any, but we all enjoyed the hunt, especially as one leaped into the water from the bank when we came too close, or one stared at us, only his face above water, daring us to try to get him.

At other times, we played hide and seek on the beautifully manicured lawn in the conifer section. All of this within with traffic passing unseen a matter of yards away on New York Avenue.

Koi swarm to children with fish pellets
Koi swarm to children with fish pellets | Source
Children stroll through Japanese garden
Children stroll through Japanese garden | Source
Approaching bansai display
Approaching bansai display | Source

They certainly aren't coy

Our other favorite spot was the administration building near the entrance from R Street NE, not because of our love of paperwork, but because the building appeared almost to float above a cement koi pond that wraps around three sides of the building.

The colorful fish range from small to huge and they tend to congregate at the southeast corner of the pool where the fish food dispenser happens to be. The children love to feed the fish that gently nibble at their hands as they hold out the food or swarm a pellet tossed into the water.

Banzai, no; bonsai, yes

Next to the koi pond is walkway through a lovely Japanese garden that ends at the extensive bonsai and penjing display, filled with masterfully sculpted miniature trees of various species. I have spent hours studying the graceful beauty and the craftsmanship and patience required to create them.

Bansai display including arranged roocks
Bansai display including arranged roocks | Source
Bansai display
Bansai display | Source
Herb garden
Herb garden | Source

Time for an herb break

Across the street from the bonsai museum is the beautiful herb garden, reputed to be the largest in North America. Not only does the garden contain a tremendous variety of herbs, but it also boasts a formal “knot” garden, trellises, a terrace and fountain and another excellent view of the Capitol columns.

Fountain in the herb garden
Fountain in the herb garden | Source
Herb garden
Herb garden | Source
Arboretum shaded picnic area
Arboretum shaded picnic area | Source

Come for the columns; stay for the trees

With nine and a half miles of roads it is easy to take in the arias devoted to azaleas or dogwoods or boxwoods or the many other collections and groupings. Or for a longer visit, explore by foot on the trails that wend through the park.

Bring a picnic lunch and avail yourself of the picnic area near the Grove of State Trees (which, by the way, did not stir my soul to ecstasies), play a little catch or toss a plastic disk-shaped device often called by a brand name in the field.

It never seems crowded and every season brings a different section to life. Some days you can even take the 35-minute tram tour, but check first to see whether it is running and what the current cost is. Last I checked it was $4.00 for adults and $2.00 for children 4-16, but you can check it here:

My family never tired of enjoying the beauty and variety of the National Arboretum—at least until the children became teens and…well you know that sad story.


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