Aquia Creek sandstone

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Capitol gatehouse and gatepost in Washington, DC, USA, composed of Aquia Creek sandstone
(Charles Bullfinch, ca. 1829)

Aquia Creek sandstone is a type of brown to light-gray freestone used extensively in building construction in Washington, D.C. in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Quarried at Aquia Creek in Stafford County, Virginia, the stone was valuable for its ease of shaping and the quarry's proximity to the tidewater portion of the Potomac River, 45 miles south of Washington.

The sandstone was the principal material used in such significant buildings as the White House and the early stages of the U.S. Capitol. The easy availability of the stone and its ability to be carved were offset in time by its susceptibility to weather-induced deterioration. Its best, most enduring uses were as interior decorative elements.

Geology[edit]

Of Cretaceous age, Aquia Creek sandstone is composed of rounded, coarse- to fine-grains of quartz, cemented with silica and containing scattered pellets of clay as large as an inch in diameter. This sandstone is typically gray or tan, sometimes with streaks or shades of red, yellow or buff, giving the stone a warm effect.[1]

History[edit]

Aquia Creek sandstone

A quarry was established at Wigginton's Island on Aquia Creek by George Brent after 1694, providing stone for tombstones and to houses and churches in northern Virginia, including Gunston Hall, Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, Mount Airy in Richmond County, Virginia, and Aquia Church, as well as steps and walkways at George Washington's Mount Vernon.[1]

Washington selected Aquia sandstone as the primary material for use in Washington's government buildings. Acting on the government's behalf, the Wigginton's Island quarry was purchased by Pierre Charles L'Enfant in 1791, becoming known afterward as Government Island.[1] The stone from the quarry was used by James Hoban for the President's House and the Capitol. The earliest portions of the Treasury Building and the Patent Office (now the National Portrait Gallery) also used the stone.[2]

Both the Capitol and the President's House were burned during the War of 1812, cracking and pitting the sandstone, and requiring extensive repair. Both buildings were whitewashed and later painted to hide damage and protect the stone from weathering, and use of the stone for exterior use declined as its shortcomings became apparent.[1] One of the last major uses of the material was at the U.S. Capitol gatehouses and gateposts, designed by Charles Bulfinch about 1827. Moved to a new location along Constitution Avenue near the White House, the gatehouses deteriorated to the point that they had to be rebuilt in 1938.[3]

Interior work fared better. Benjamin Latrobe designed sandstone columns crowned with American-themed corncobs and tobacco leaves, termed by Latrobe the "American Orders" for the Supreme Court vestibule in the Capitol, which survive in good condition.[2]

The Public Quarry at Government Island is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[4]

Viewing today[edit]

A good example of Aquia Creek sandstone as it was used in monumental architecture is the relocated "National Capitol Columns" (1828) now at the National Arboretum. The best places to see Aquia Creek sandstone as it was used indoors are in the older parts of the U.S. Capitol and in the National Portrait Gallery (Old Patent Office Building) courtyard. The sandstone gallery of the latter building, with its plain squat columns, is particularly impressive. In the Capitol Building, the stone may be seen in the walls and columns of the rooms adjoining the rotunda and in the spiral staircase. The graceful Little Rotunda tobacco column colonnade in the Senate wing on this floor, designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe, is especially attractive. Downstairs, the simple Doric columns of the crypt have a brownish cast, while the famous cornstalk columns in a nearby entrance hall are decidedly gray.

Structures incorporating Aquia Creek[edit]

Benjamin Latrobe-designed cenotaphs for Senators John C. Calhoun (left) and Henry Clay in the Congressional Cemetery

See also[edit]

References[edit]