When you visit the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. try not to get too caught up in the splendor and instead, look down. Chances are you’ll see a tiny little elf-door somewhere along the wall. In fact, they are scattered throughout the U.S. Capitol building but most visitors never notice them.

The tiny doors serve as more than just a conversation piece or humorous Reeko’s Mad Scientist Lab article. At one time, they served an important function. But we have to look way back in time to understand how those tiny little doors kept the Capitol building safe.

The Christmas Eve Capitol fire

On Christmas Eve in 1851, a guard (John Jones) was making his rounds through the Capitol building when he noticed a flicker of light through one of the windows on the second floor. He had no key to the room so he broke down the door. Inside, a fire was beginning to grow. It was 1851 and plumbing was not as common as it is today. There was no source of water on the floor. He ran downstairs and gathered water in a bucket. When he returned, the fire had spread throughout a second-floor library.

Jones ran downstairs, straight past the water trough, to a nearby fire station where he waved frantically and pointed towards the Capitol building. Seven fire stations responded to the fire which took all night to extinguish. Sadly, the fire destroyed important documents, including many of the books once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

The fire department determined that the fire began with a spark from a fireplace in the room below. Jones himself pointed out that he could have easily put out the fire if he had water nearby. His testimony led to Captain Montgomery C. Meigs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers being assigned to a project to ensure the most important building in the country could not easily burn to the ground.

Meigs built the Washington Aqueduct, a system that transported water from the nearby Potomac River into the Capitol building. Meigs sought to ensure the historic deco in the Capitol retained its grandeur. The pipes were placed inside the walls and faucets scattered throughout the building, hidden behind tiny little doors.

The cubby holes behind the 30-inch-tall doors also served as a convenient closet for janitors to store their buckets of water that they used to mop the floor (the roads and pathways outside were dirt so mud was a big problem inside the Capitol building).

Ultimately their purpose evolved to be conversation starters for eagle-eyed visitors. So the next time your are touring the U.S. Capitol building, find one of the doors, stop the group and shout, “Hey, I didn’t know the Capitol had elves working here!”

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