Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Secret Entryways to the White House? Maybe not…

At the corner of 15th and Constitution and 17th and Constitution stand two small houses, ornate in design considering their small size. The story I had always been told is that they were escape routes from White House… …the one Dolly Madison used when she took George Washington’s portrait and the Constitution and some other stuff out of the White House…there was a vague fire…possibly by the British…in 1812ish. Turns out that’s a lie.

Named after the Architect of the Capitol, Charles Bulfinch, the Bulfinch Gatehouses served a different purpose altogether. Back in the day, it was common to use the public grounds around the Capitol for the grazing of cattle and livestock. By the 1820s the grounds had become a zoo, literally. To combat this problem, Charles Bulfinch constructed a fence around the Capitol to keep the animals out, with a guardhouse at each of the four corners. There the buildings stood until Frederick Law Olmstead (famed designer of Central Park) came to the U.S. Capitol to provide some sorely needed renovations and landscaping in the 1880s.

Two of the gatehouses and gateposts were moved to their present location near the White House grounds, along Constitution Avenue. On the southeast side of the markers are two lines carved in the sandstone indicating the high-water marks for the Potomac River floods in 1877 and 1881. The latter prompted Congress to dredge the Potomac.

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