History of the National Capitol Columns at the Arboreteum by Janice Kaplan

The following was written by Janice Kaplan.

Twenty-two massive Corinthian columns that stand in a meadow two miles from the U.S. Capitol represent a little-known piece of inaugural history. One of Washington, D.C.’s most notable and dramatic landmarks, the original National Capitol Columns are on permanent display at the U.S. National Arboretum where they may be viewed leading up to the inauguration, and throughout the year. The columns were the backdrop for two dozen presidential inaugurations from Andrew Jackson to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, gave his famous second inaugural address in front of the columns.

“Anyone who has visited the U.S. National Arboretum, either during the day or when the Capitol Columns are dramatically illuminated from below at night, understands the power and grace of these historic pillars,” said Dr. Thomas S. Elias, director of the U.S. National Arboretum. “In this inaugural season, it is compelling to imagine the sights and sounds of past inaugurations while standing among the Arboretum’s columns.”


The sandstone columns were a source of great pride when they were installed at the U.S. Capitol in 1825. They were considered the splendid finish for a building that had taken 33 years to build. Their elaborate design is based on ancient Roman Corinthian columns used in the grandest public buildings of that empire. These classic architectural references were considered necessary for a young nation that wished to assert itself on the world stage.

The columns were removed from the Capitol in 1958 when they were declared too fragile to support the newly expanded dome and an extended east portico. They were replaced with marble replicas and the originals were put into storage on the banks of the Anacostia River.

Continues after the jump.


In a 1989 architectural history of the columns, William C. Allen, then architectural historian in the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, wrote: “The saga of the sandstone columns’ rebirth at the National Arboretum is one of dogged determination by the Friends of the National Arboretum led by philanthropist Ethel Garrett and those who continued her work after her death in 1986. Soon after the columns were removed from the Capitol, Garrett struck upon the idea of preserving them at the Arboretum where the public could enjoy their power, beauty and historic associations. The noted English landscape architect Russell Page, a close personal friend, was asked by Garrett to set forth a plan. Just before his death, Page selected a site in a broad, open meadow and sketched a design incorporating the columns in a nearly square plan completed by a fountain and a pool. Private contributions totaling $1.5 million were in hand before work to re-erect the columns was begun in June 1988.”

The U.S. National Arboretum

The 446-acre U.S. National Arboretum is a U.S. Department of Agriculture research and education facility and a living museum. Highlights include the spring display of more than 15,000 azaleas; the world’s first bonsai museum with more than 150 bonsai; a “Power Plants” exhibition featuring a selection of plants that provide valuable sources of bioenergy; a two-and-a-half acre National Herb Garden; and 300 koi, original gifts from Japan, which swim in the East Terrace pool.

Located at 3501 New York Avenue NE (a 10-minute drive from downtown Washington) the Arboretum grounds are open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Dec. 25. Admission is free. Public programs and special events are held throughout the year. For more information, visit www.usna.usda.gov or call (202) 245-2726.

7 Comment

  • The Arboretum is yet another of DC’s lonely gems that will make you forget you live in a city.

    • so true. its beauty has brought me peace when i literally can’t afford to get out of this city for a break. love it.

  • The bonsai museum, where they have bonsai that are more than 400 years old is particularly worth visiting.

  • The Arboretum is of the good things about DC, an oasis of beauty. The Koi Ponds are amazing, go at feeding time.

  • I celebrate the enslaved Africans who built these columns. This installation serves as a testament to their courage, strength, skill and ability to endure the horrors of American Slavery.

  • One of the columns lies flat, broken atop the mountain near the azalea trail.

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