In November 1899, Washington, DC, loaned the Architect of the Capitol a fire engine, along with its firemen, for a special task: to give the Capitol a bath.
Dirt and discoloration settled on the Capitol’s white stone surface throughout the year, and the building’s intricate carvings provided crannies where birds built nests, so tidying was a constant battle. Apparently pleased with how the 1899 laundering went, caretakers continued to arrange for freshening-up help from the District for decades afterward. House Collection photographs capture firefighters battling dirt and birds’ nests on Capitol Hill.
By 1901, newspapers termed it an “annual bath.” That November, a steam fire engine parked in front of the Capitol. Eight firefighters from Engine Company No. 3 wrangled around 700 feet of hose, spraying water at the edifice. “Dozens of bird’s nests have been flooded out of the eaves of the porticos and window casings,” a reporter observed. Workers also tackled particularly grimy spots with brushes and soap.
In summer 1906, the New York Tribune noted the cleaning took place twice per year and took several days. The Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol building got a different treatment, receiving a diluted chemical wash in 1903, and a “heavy lather of castile soap and scrubbing brushes” in 1913. After the construction of the House and Senate Office Buildings, firefighters also brought “wash day,” as one newspaper called the tradition, to other structures.
When planning to hose down a large government building, missteps may occasionally occur. Officials scheduled sanitization for recess, before the start of a new Congress. As a result, when a session ran long, the Capitol’s bath nearly got scrubbed. The Washington Post groused in 1944 that the annual hosing began “tardily” because Congress had “procrastinated over its decision to adjourn.”
Twenty-five years earlier, the building and its staff faced an incident worse than an adjournment-caused delay. As usual, the fire department showed up to aim “a mighty stream of water” at the Capitol in late November. However, as the Washington Evening Star reported: “Some of the windows were not shut tightly enough to keep out the water, and it came through cracks in generous quantities, causing a scurrying about among employe[e]s in the Capitol, seeking to keep their effects from being drenched.”
As the 20th century went on, ideas changed about how to best clean the Capitol. In 1960, as builders extended the Capitol’s East Front with bright new marble, administrators decided to spruce up the entire structure. The Baltimore Sun declared that the House and Senate wings had “gathered dust and grown dingy and gray.” The annual fire hosing wasn’t keeping the building clean. In fact, the Sun reported, after the wings started to lose their sheen, “the sandstone middle section was each year painted a little grayer to match the graying wings.” To match the older stone with the shiny new extension, officials used even more powerful scouring techniques, including pressure washing and sandblasting.
But aggressive power washing—along with natural phenomena like rain, ice, and snow—harms stone, and led to deterioration of the Capitol’s carvings. Recent cleaning techniques have kept preservation in mind, and included milder methods like steam, laser, and warm water applied with low pressure. Although Washington’s fire department helped bathe the Capitol for more than 60 years, the custom of hosing down the building has now run dry.
Sources: Baltimore Sun, 22 November 1899, 5 November 1910, 24 July 1960; Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), 29 November 1901; Los Angeles Times, 25 November 1934; New York Times, 17 June 1903, 10 July 1913, 27 November 1932, 21 November 1939; New York Tribune, 5 August 1906; Washington Evening Star, 26 November 1919; Washington Post, 28 November 1901, 15 October 1911, 28 September 1944; Franklin Bradley, “It's About Time,” Architect of the Capitol Blog, 15 December 2016, https://www.aoc.gov/blog/time-for-capitol-stone-preservation; Matt Guilfoyle, “Crumbling Down and Building Up,” Architect of the Capitol Blog, 29 September 2014, https://www.aoc.gov/blog/crumbling-down-and-building.Follow @USHouseHistory