Stone-Cold Whodunit Chunks of the Capitol have been gathering moss in Rock Creek Park for 50 years. There's an even deeper mystery behind them.

Darrow Montgomery

An attorney and an architectural historian from Chevy Chase, Md., walked down a worn path on a recent spring day in Rock Creek Park to take a look at a historical site. Before long, they were joined by representatives of the National Park Service.

Their encounter was not a typical “Hey, how are you folks doing today?” interaction with ranger-types.

“They walked us out of here,” says Bill Lebovich, the architectural historian and photographer. “They were very clear about it.”

The men had arrived at a spot in the park not widely known. There, behind some construction equipment and stacks of rusted picnic tables, is the U.S. Capitol—parts of it, anyway. The stone pieces covered in moss and rotting limbs have been sitting there since 1959, not quite dumped but not quite preserved, either.

According to Eva Malecki, spokesperson for the Architect of the Capitol, they were part of what was torn down during a renovation that started in 1958 and ended in 1962. The pieces, mostly sandstone and some marble from the east front façade, likely originate from the rebuilding that occurred after the Capitol was nearly burned down in the War of 1812. Instead of reusing the pieces, they were placed in this part of Rock Creek Park per an agreement with then-Architect of the Capitol J. George Stewart and the National Park Service (NPS), Malecki says.

Among the stones are several carved with letters and numbers, clues to reassemble this section should it ever be moved. Also visible: stones with characteristic “egg and dart” molding atop a row of a design element called “dentils”—“like your teeth,” says Lebovich.

Lebovich, who has authored and photographed several features for Architecture Week, was pulled to the site by Josh Bowers, the attorney, through his neighborhood Listserv.

One of the mysterious, undocumented stone pits in the Capitol stoneyard (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Bowers, a Civil War buff, came across the Capitol pieces first and later stumbled upon a literally deeper mystery—seven holes dug into the ground and encased in rocks, resembling water wells. They are clearly part of another, separate structure that looks like it was there before the Capitol stones’ deposit, but as far as dedicated researchers can tell, there is no record of what they are or why they’re there.

One thing that Bowers does know: The holes aren’t a good spot for children.

In early March, Bowers and his 7-year-old son, Noah, were out for a walk and looking for a Civil War trench. They came upon the piles of stones, and Bowers, having recently read The Dangerous Book for Boys, thought it was not a bad place for his son to explore.

A play date was set. Noah and a friend of his were climbing up and around the pieces of the Capitol when Bowers looked down and noticed the holes, later measured to be about 14 feet deep. Noah came close to falling in one. Once that catastrophe had been averted, Bowers’ curiosity sent him on a quest.

He’s consulted old maps, old documents, and the Internet, of course. When he contacted several people within the park service—including experts in the history of Rock Creek Park—no one could find records or even conclusive theories about the old stone structures. When he realized he needed someone else to help him do the research, preferably someone with an architectural background, he hopped on the Listserv and found Lebovich, who happens to live three doors down.

Lebovich, vaguely aware of the Capitol stones in the park, was intrigued by Bowers’ claim of an undocumented site. He saw enough before the unexplained NPS intervention to remain curious.

Bowers, left, and Lebovich were asked to leave while on a research visit to the park. (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Gary Scott, the chief historian for the National Capital Region of NPS, is not yet convinced the men are on to some great find. Although contacted by Lebovich, he has not gone to the site to inspect the structures himself. “However, members of our staff who have looked at the site recently report not finding evidence of anything other than a dismantled stoneyard,” he writes. “We have not done research to substantiate the assertion that any of the stones represent anything other than the stoneyard which has been there for years.”

Scott says he is aware that the Capitol pieces are the property of the Architect of the Capitol and are occasionally used in renovations and repair work of federal buildings. It was his understanding that the pieces were fenced off.

When informed there was no fence, Scott said the pieces “are protected by virtue of being in the middle of Rock Creek Park.”

The area, however, is easily accessible to the public. There’s convenient parking at the nature center or stables, with a path leading from the stables’ lot. It’s conceivable that someone industrious and furtive could, with some planning, cart out the stones from the post-1812 U.S. Capitol for their home landscaping project. A friend of Bowers’ suggested as much, he says. He discouraged her.

On a recent visit with Bowers, his son, and Lebovich, park employees paid little attention. Noah again clambered over the old Capitol and he, again, came too close to the edge of one of the mysterious holes. “Noah, if you fall in there, that would be the saddest day of my life,” Bowers said as his son backed off.

Bowers has heard a few plausible suggestions for the purpose of the holes: munitions storage is one, since there are several Civil War trenches and Fort DeRussy, which played a role in the Valley Campaigns of 1864, nearby. Before we trekked out to the site, Bowers opened a map book on the trunk of his car that shows the locations of old homes, trenches, forts—although the map in the book is a reprinting of one from the late 19th century, it’s pretty complete. There’s nothing on the spot with the wells.

What’s clear is they are probably not wells. They’re too shallow and “nobody is digging wells side-by-side,” says Bowers. Bowers at one point thought the site might be a lime kiln, but rejected that theory once he realized there was no evidence of scorching. Others he’s consulted have suggested the pits were used for cold storage or that they are elaborate landscaping elements. None of these theories are completely satisfactory, however.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“These stones aren’t here randomly,” says Bowers, “yet no one can find any record of a structure at this site.”

Lebovich has some ideas. He’s done a good deal of research into the Works Projects Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, Depression-era programs to employ the unemployed. The stonework at this site resembles the stonework done by the CCC at the barbecue pits throughout Rock Creek Park, he says.

“I think this was a make-work project of the WPA,” he continues. The barbecue pits have mortar—whereas the seven holes at the site do not—and the pits are “nothing to this scale,” but he posits, “maybe this was where [the workers] were trained.”

Lebovich, however, has also come up blank on proving this and other theories. He’s consulted the National Archives and has been in touch with curators at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, Mass. (The Olmsteds, famous landscape architects, were involved in both the planning of Rock Creek Park and the redesign of the Capitol grounds.)

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

While the search for the history of the site continues, it also continues to play a role in modern events.

On April 5, a local artist used the area for a sound installation project. Layne Garrett, half of the experimental sound duo Cutest Puppy in the World, put out a call for “nature lovers, urban decay aficionados, audio enthusiasts, [and] children” to meet him at the site for a “large-scale tape loop intervention.”

Garrett bought a bunch of answering-machine cassettes with 30-second loops off of eBay and sent around a lyrical and cryptic message about the Rock Creek site, one of his favorite in D.C.

“It was put here for me,” the message said in part. “Unknown refuse, dis-carded and re-arranged. Public ruin, magical beautiful land-fill. Building? Bridge? Monument? Dis-assembled and re-ordered.”

About 60 people met him at the site on that Sunday to participate in the installation. Garrett estimates about 50 more came to watch.

Blogger Chester Hawkins, who’s been writing the Intangible Arts site since 2005, covered it. He described participants placing boom boxes, toy karaoke machines, Walkmans attached to speakers, and iPod decks throughout the Capitol “ruins.” Photographs show people down in the wells rigging up their sound machines.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“As more participants arrived, embedding their sounds into the environment, a curious audio salad began to form,” Hawkins wrote. “Seeping out of the rocks were the melancholy notes of a piano.…The squealing laughter of an infant. The textured noodling of a fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Voices. Breathing. Static. Echoes.”

In other words, it was all very cool. “It was kind of a genius idea on Layne Garrett’s part, with that location,” says Hawkins. He wasn’t aware the site was home to some historical holes, although he had heard about the pieces of the Capitol from Garrett. “I had to look that up,” he says, “and trust what Google gave me.”

Our Readers Say

Good find! I've been all over Rock Creek Park (or so I thought) but never saw these ruins/stone piles. Way to go Josh and Noah!
Bill and I are hoping readers will post on this City Paper comment page their suggestions for why and when someone built this over beautiful 1,000 square feet structure with stone walls up to ten feet high with seven wells dug down to the ground level up to about 14 feet deep. Any suggestions will be warmly welcomed and appreciated. Thank you. You may also send questions or comments to me at JBdcLaw@aol.com or through www.JoshBowersLaw.com.
after participating in the loop project, i was curious. Thanks for the article. They mysteries continue.
The damask rose.

Often, when
a green and
delicate rose
appears near an
hopeful hedge,
a passing cloud
invents an emotion,
and even a smile,
like beautiful
thoughts in the
sun of your song.

Francesco Sinibaldi
Are the holes possibly associated with one of the numerous mills along Rock Creek?

Besides the lime kiln that was guessed at, there are other sorts of outbuildings, spring houses, smoke houses cisterns, ice cellars, root cellars, tanning vats, etc.

Who owned the land in question before the creation of Rock creek Park?
A history buff and archaeologist's DREAM !
Though having grown up in the DC area, I'd no idea these stones existed and that there were so many of them. Talk about a fascinating find !
It was like a visit to Rome or Greece. Quite a treasure trove of Classical architecture pieces, 19th-century copper gutters, iron work, and enormous marble enclosures--all resting in piles as if cast there by a giant's hand. If these stones could only speak, and tell of the generations of history they witnessed.
I'm so grateful to WCP for running this story---this is one of DC's hidden historical gems. You may want to fence them off for safety reasons, but PLEASE don't shut them away from the public, they're too interesting !
dude its haunted
it does not take much to remind how stupid the NPS can really, really be..from the office of the archiology, DC Governemnt: "There are two sites in the park with visible cellar holes that resulted from farms taken when the park was established. Both were occupied by African-Americans who had lived and farmed for decades in what is now the park. We know them as the Charles Dickson site (about 3000 ft. from the Nature center) and Sara Whitby site (about 5400 ft. from the Nature center). These are interesting remains because they reflect both ownership (Dickson) and occupancy/tenancy (Whitby) by African Americans. There are other house remains scattered throughout the park, from the houses, farms, and tenancies that were present when the NPS consolidated the properties. Several have visible cellar holes and remains other than the two above, but they are not really near the Nature Center.

The remains of Ft. DeRussy are much closer – about 1100 ft. north of the Nature Center, but I don’t they’d be mistaken for a large house. "

Conclusion? SHITTERS.
I thought Rich Schaffer's description of the homes near the nature center was very interesting. It would be helpful if he could post directions to the sites. Wee the homes near the civil war trench. The civil war trench is about 100 yards long and starts on the opposite side of the creek from the Park Police station on Beech drive and continues up towards the stables.
I went recently and couldn't find the wells/holes. Looking back at this article and comments, it sounds like they're dug into the wall-like structure which is past the stacks of carved granite, is that correct (so, in other words, over towards the fence to the maintenance parking lot)?
Really, the ideas, which you have shared, are useful for all of those who are worried about their vehicle parking system. Thanks for sharing.

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