In the United States as well as the rest of the northern hemisphere, the first day of the summer occurred over this past weekend. Known technically as the Northern Solstice, or by those affected as the Summer Solstice, it is the day of the year when the sun is farthest north. For people in the northern hemisphere, the first day of summer is the longest day of the year, with the length of time elapsed between sunrise and sunset at its maximum. At this time of year the equator receives twelve hours of daylight, while there is 24 hours of daylight at the North Pole. In the United States, there will be approximately 14½ hours of daylight starting tomorrow.
To celebrate the beginning of summer, I decided to write about The Summerhouse. Tucked away on the sloping hillside on the northwest side of the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building (MAP), the Summerhouse is a small, ornate, hexagonal red brick and Spanish tile building. It has three arched doorways flanked by small windows on three of the six walls, and an open roof. In the center of the structure is a fountain that used to be fed by a local spring. The building’s water supply originally fed into a large bowl, and ladles were chained to the bowl to be used for drinking the cool spring water. Overflow was often used to supply water for horses. Today the original fountain bowl is decorative only and the ladles are gone, but it is surrounded by modern drinking fountains which utilize city water. And you are more likely to find dog walkers providing water to their canine friends than riders watering their horses.
Lining the interior of the Summerhouse you will also find numerous bench seats alternating with the doorways, which are designed to provide seating for 22 people. The seats are constructed out of bluestone, and are shaded and sheltered by projecting coverings of Spanish mission tiles, thus providing an ideal place for enjoying a cool drink of water on a warm summer day.
The original design intended for some of the overflow from the Summerhouse’s fountain to operate a small device called a “carillon” to produce soft musical chimes. Designed by Tiffany & Co. of New York, the device could not be made to work properly and was eventually removed in 1891. Years later, in 1959, visitors to the Summerhouse were finally able to hear the music of a carillon when The Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon opened nearby just north of the Capitol Building.
The Summerhouse was designed by architect Thomas Wisedell, with construction beginning in 1879 and completed in late 1880 or early 1881 by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who had previously been appointed by Congress in 1874 to develop and improve the expanded Capitol grounds. The grounds had recently increased in size during the process of designing and building the north and south wings of the Capitol Building. Original plans called for two identical structures, but members of Congress objected to the design of the first and present building, so the plans for a second, matching summerhouse on the southern side of the Capitol Building were abandoned and the twin was never built.
Today, the Summerhouse can be a hidden surprise and delight for visitors touring the Capitol grounds, providing refreshment of both body and spirit. Unfortunately, most people simply walk past it. Some are oblivious to its presence, while others may be curious, but remain too focused on where they are going to stop and take enough time to discover it and what’s inside.