When New England’s tallest elm tree, “Herbie,” succumbed to Dutch Elm disease, craftsmen made the wood into everything from a guitar to a casket. When the dust settled after 9/11, shipbuilders recycled the Twin Towers’ steel into the USS New York. And when the United States Capitol got a face-lift, the old stones went to molder in a Washington, D.C. forest. So here’s to the visionaries who, with the foresight to dispose of famous construction debris in an out-of-the-way corner of a forested park, unwittingly choreographed an urban explorer’s dream.
Finding the fabled stones is fraught with challenges. For one, Rock Creek Park, home of the erstwhile Capitol facade, is big–as in 1,754 acres-big. The old blocks take up (by a rough estimate) maybe half an acre. Sniffing out their location will undoubtedly cull those pilgrims lacking a few minutes’ time and the cunning to consult the Great JuJu in the Sky, Google.
Those who can muster an educated guess on the old stones’ location aren’t home free yet, though, because there’s evidence that the National Park Service isn’t too keen on folks poking around in what amounts to a scrapyard. Maybe it’s that you’d be having a bad day if any one of these thousands of stones fell on you. Or that there are mysterious fourteen-foot-deep holes hiding on the forest floor nearby. Some people may cry nanny state, but I’m inclined to believe the park rangers are onto something. So you’ll have to put on your best “nothing-to-see-here-just-out-for-a-leisurely-stroll” game face before seeking out the ruins.
Oh, and one last roadblock for the squeamish–horse poop. As much of Rock Creek Park’s extensive network of trails consists of bridle paths, the horses’ caca is everywhere, so prevalent that one starts to notice the fibrous and grassy nuances that distinguish this waste from the gifts that Spot, Fido, and Rover leave on lawns across the good old U.S. of A. Don’t don the boots you’ll be wearing to your mother-in-law’s later in the evening.
If you can overcome all the challenges, you’ll eventually be rewarded by these beautiful ruins–stones stacked with some semblance of order but plainly past their prime.
The U.S. Capitol, yesterday and today
As a couple good articles in Washington City Paper and the blog DCinruins explain, these ruins were part of the U.S. Capitol for well over a century. They watched this nation transition from weak-kneed fledgling to global superpower. They stood in the background for presidential inaugurations forgettable and not. They watched when John Wilkes Booth stood feet away as Abraham Lincoln, a man whom he’d murder six weeks later, implored his fellow countrymen to act “with malice toward none.”
Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Booth is the man whose face is relatively clear in front of the first column to the right of the statue that appears to be leaning forward.
Rock Creek’s forest has long since reclaimed the old U.S. Capitol; vines and moss and all manner of brush have taken up residence among them. The living forest has no regard for the flourishes artisans carved into the stones. Only humans that visit can appreciate the drill holes in the blocks’ hidden sides that betray the method used to blast them from a quarry. But if there’s any divine justice in these old bones, it’s that in their obscurity they’re an objective, a hidden gem for those who can appreciate the absurdity of so noble a collection of refuse lying unacknowledged by the nation they served for so long.