The Two Fates of the Old East Portico

Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

“That I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States”

RM: If you were standing in the crowd for any of the Presidential inaugurations from Andrew Jackson to Dwight D. Eisenhower, you’d have seen the solemn oath of office taken between 24 tall, smooth columns at the East portico of the United States Capitol Building.
“…President of the United States, so help me God.”

RM: When the columns were installed in 1824, the sandstone slabs themselves that made up the columns, even before they were erected, were considered so important that they were transported from the Potomac River to Capitol Hill by human power alone. No lowly mules were deemed fit to move such sacred objects. But they didn’t have quite the same standing in 1958.

Betty Rea (BR): They had been taken off the east front when the east front was extended. They were stored down the Potomac- crated, slowly disintegrating.

RM: After the renovation of the Capitol, the columns all got the boot. That notion was horrifying to Ethel Garrett. And she conscripted her friend, Betty Rea.

BR: I’m Elizabeth C. Rea, known as Betty Rea.

RM: And sometime in the 1970s, they made it their mission to get the columns back on their feet.

BR: I thought this would be very simple. I mean, who would say, you know, you couldn’t do this.

RM: It turns out plenty of people stood in the way.

BR: Technically they still belonged to Congress.

RM: And after ten years of meetings

BR: You had to appear before various committees

RM: And more meetings

BR: Then they would have another meeting

RM: And fundraising

BR: I had to appear before the National Planning Commission

RM: And hiring architects and surveyors

BR: I learned a tremendous amount about bureaucracy.

RM: The columns were moved from storage

BR: From the area along the Potomac, they were put on trailers and strapped with band of steel things on mattresses, old mattresses. And they were then brought to the National Arboretum.

RM: The Arboretum is a swath of greenery nestled in among the warehouses and gas stations at the edge of Washington D.C. It’s where the old columns of the U.S. Capitol still are today.

BR: When you’re walking up to the columns, located on a high area in the meadow of the Arboretum, they’re majestic. They’re huge columns. They of course are free-standing. They are really majestic. And there’s only one way of describing it. Majestic.

Jess Schreibstein (JS): I could see them approaching from the field and they actually look pretty majestic.

RM: The consensus seems to be that they look pretty majestic.

JS: It’s pretty spectacular.

RM: That’s radio producer Jess Schreibstein, checking out the columns at the National Arboretum.

JS: So to my right, on the crest of this very small hill are, I want to guesstimate, a couple dozen columns? You think that’s about right?

Chrissy Moore (CM): Twenty-two.

RM: With her is Chrissy Moore. She works at the Arboretum.

JS: So they have corinthian tops on these columns and they’re lined up in a few rows. Very tall. I understand why people think they’re from Greece or from Rome because it actually looks like some old Greek ruin sitting on top of a hill.

CM: A definite, distinct grandeur about it, that you won’t see much outside of Washington D.C.

RM: Independent of their grand presentation, the columns hold a certain power. Even if they don’t, you know, hold a roof. But not all of the old East Portico had a champion like Betty Rea.
JS: Yeah, my directions say, “Go downhill into the woods. Go down towards the bottom of the hill. There will be no trail, don’t worry, keep walking.”

RM: Several miles away from the National Arboretum, where there’s no visitor’s center, there’s no commemorative plaques

JS: “Then at the bottom of the hill there will be a trail that goes up into a ravine. And you go on that trail and then at a large concrete bridge, take the lower fork to pass under the bridge, and then there’s a clearing on the left.”

RM: And here in the middle of the woods lies the rest of the Capitol’s East Portico- the rest that didn’t make it to the Arboretum.

CM: To the right of us are basically stacks and stacks of columns that we almost could have walked right by I feel like.

JS: Could have walked right by and not even seen them.

CM: Because they’re next to some buildings, it looks like it could just be, you know, some building materials. But if you look at it more closely, you see that they are actually kind of moss-covered and do look rather ancient.

RM: This place is 100 square yards of busted-up architecture. Mounds of stone and granite and decapitated heads of corinthian columns weathering in the snow. But its arrangement is oddly intentional. With bits of building stacked ten, fifteen feet high, with wells and chasms spanning between.

CM: This is it? They’re just going to leave them here? It seems kind of sad.

RM: They are the physical manifestation of the parts of history that didn’t make the cut.

JS: They do look a bit sad, they look pretty dejected.

CM: Wow, okay. It’s kind of quite a climb up here. Woah- this one’s wobbly.

RM: But even here, without the rolling meadow and historic backdrop, the ruins still manage to be majestic.

CM: I think if I discovered this as a kid, I would have felt like I discovered the lost world.

“Yeah, it feels a little like Atlantis”

RM: This episode of 99% Invisible was produced by me, Roman Mars, with Sam Greenspan and Jess Schriebstein, with help from Melissa Lee and John Asante. This program is made possible with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, the American Institute of Architects San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design.

Comments (2)


  1. The Whisper Cities website is almost completely empty. There are a couple of graphics, nothing to click on. If you’re still in touch with them, which I’m sure you are, it would be well appreciated if you asked them about it. I really like their premise, and it is unfortunate that they didn’t go anywhere with it.

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