Historic Sites and Buildings
Not only is this building, erected by Col. John Tayloe, a superb example of Federal-style architecture, but President and "Father of the Constitution" James Madison and his wife also temporarily resided in it for about a year while the White House was being rebuilt following its burning by British troops in 1814. In the second-floor, front study he held Cabinet meetings and signed the Treaty of Ghent.
Colonel Tayloe, a wealthy and influential planter whose main residence was at Mount Airy estate in Richmond County, Va., was apparently persuaded by his friend George Washington to build a townhouse in the new Capital City instead of in Philadelphia. In 1797 Tayloe purchased a triangular corner lot 2 blocks west of the newly rising President's House (White House), and obtained the architectural services of Dr. William Thornton, original architect of the Capitol. Work on the Tayloe home, one of the first to be put up in Washington after it was designated as the Capital, began in 1798 or 1799, and George Washington likely visited the site to observe construction progress.
When completed in 1800, the year after his death and well before the White House was finished, the residence was one of the finest in the Nation. After the Tayloes moved in the next year, it became a gathering place for early Washington society and the scene of many brilliant social affairs. Guests over the years included Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Jackson, Decatur, Webster, Clay, Calhoun, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Baron von Steuben.
On August 24-25, 1814, during the War of 1812, the British occupied Washington and set fire to the White House, Capitol, and other buildings. Octagon House was likely spared only because the Tayloes had leased it temporarily to French Minister Louis Serrurier (Serurier), who flew the Tricolor from it. Offered the use of several local homes when they returned to the city, the President and his wife, Dolley, after living briefly at another residence, accepted the invitation of the Tayloes, who stayed at their Virginia plantation, and moved into Octagon House on September 8, 1814.
Presidential life quickly resumed a normal pace, though wartime anxieties cast a pall over social gatherings. The Madisons maintained their living quarters on the second floor, in the southeast suite, which consisted of a small vestibule, a large bedroom with a fireplace, and a smaller dressing room. The President used the adjoining circular tower room as a study and at least some of the time as a meetingplace for his Cabinet. There, on February 17, 1815, he signed the Treaty of Ghent concluding the war, after the Senate had unanimously ratified it. Later in 1815, for some reason the Madisons relocated to 1901 Pennsylvania Avenue, at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 19th Street, NW., in the "Seven Buildings." They lived there for the remainder of his Presidential term.
The Tayloes returned to Octagon House. After Colonel Tayloe died in 1828, his wife continued to occupy it until her death in 1855. Thereafter the building was leased for a variety of purposes and fell into disrepair. As early as 1889 the American Institute of Architects expressed interest in acquiring it from the Tayloe family for its national headquarters, and in 1897 agreed to rent it for 5 years and began rehabilitation. The institute took formal possession in 1899, and 3 years later effected the purchase.
The mansion, which has been carefully restored, is in excellent condition. Marking a new zenith in Federal architecture, as characterized by its spare though brilliant geometric forms and in the restrained yet elegant Adam-style decoration, it represents a major departure from the traditional late Georgian and early Federal styles that preceded it. The unusual plan, which combines a circle, a triangle, and two rectangles, ingeniously adapts the structure to the acute angle formed by the intersection of New York Avenue and 18th Street. Despite its name, Octagon House is actually an irregular hexagon broken by a dominant semicircular bay projecting from the front, or southwest, face. There are eight sides only if the front bay is counted as three.
Constructed of red brick laid in Flemish bond on the facade and in English bond on the rear, the building rises three stories over a raised stone basement. The only important structural change ever made was removal, some time before 1830, of the original Adam-style, flat-deck roof and fronting high brick parapet. A low, hipped roof was added, and the present cornice was installed. Four tall interior chimneys now pierce the roof.
The belt course marking the second floor, recessed rectangular panels below the third, and all the window sills are of Aquia sandstone. Small, elliptical, grilled-iron balconies accent the floor-to-ceiling windows of the second floor. Window lintels are rubbed brick jack arches without keystones. Stone steps, flanked by a grilled-iron handrail lead to the one-story, flat-roofed portico, which is supported by two Ionic columns and two pilasters. A leaded, glazed fanlight tops the six-paneled door.
The elaborate interior decoration, in the Adam style, includes molded baseboards and chair railings, plaster cornices and ceiling centerpieces, mahogany doors with brass knobs and locks, wide pine floorboards, several ornate mantels, and period furniture.
In the circular entrance hall, opposite the main doorway is a graceful classical archway, which has engaged, fluted Corinthian columns. Alongside it are two arched alcoves containing cast-iron stoves, which were once used for heating and which resemble classical urns on pedestals. The archway opens into a nearly oval stairhall, in the triangular portion of the house. The stairs have plain balusters and a sweeping, rounded handrail unhindered by any newel posts. The curved landings are lighted by the rear Palladian and semicircular windows. Arched statue niches decorate each side of the first landing. Underneath this level on the main floor is the back entrance. West of the stairway are small, enclosed service stairs.
The two present rectangular reception rooms that angle off from the stairhall on the ground floor, one on each side, were originally the drawing room to the southeast and the dining area to the southwest. Both rooms feature handsome, artificial, cast stone mantels made in 1799 in London by a Madame Coade.
Exhibited in President Madison's study, the front rotunda on the second floor, is the pivoted, circular table on which he signed the Treaty of Ghent. Displayed thereon is the small, leatherbound trunk in which the document was brought back from Europe. Off the upper stairhall are two exhibition galleries, which were originally partitioned into living quarters, including those used by the Madisons. Offices now occupy the third floor, which once consisted of five bedrooms. The restored kitchen, wine cellar, and other service rooms are in the basement.
The outbuildings once included a kitchen, carriage house, slave quarters, stable, and smokehouse; only the latter remains. Behind it and the restored garden is the new semicircular headquarters building of the American Institute of Architects, which was completed in 1973.
Last Updated: 29-Jul-2004