Historic Sites and Buildings
Immediately surrounding and in the environs of Lafayette Square, or Lafayette Park as it is officially known, are a group of sites and buildings possessing unusual historical and architectural merit. They illustrate the growth of the Nation's Capital from its early years to the present day and reflect a variety of architectural trends and styles. Many prominent Americans have worked, lived, or visited in these places. Several of them bear a close association with the Presidency or with specific Presidents, and the park itself was once part of the White House grounds.
In architect-engineer Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the Capital, he included the present park, then a neglected, treeless common, in President's Park. This area, the original White House estate, extended from present H Street between 15th and 17th Streets NW. to the Potomac River. President Jefferson, however, specified the boundaries of today's park and designated it as a public area. Workers constructing the White House lived there in temporary shelters.
A market later occupied the grounds. During the War of 1812, U.S. soldiers camped there. In 1824, under the direction of the U.S. Commissioner of Public Buildings, who was then responsible for the plot, the park was improved and the first walks laid out. It soon after began to be known as Lafayette Square, in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the War for Independence, who visited Washington while touring the United States in 1824-25.
The first plans for professional landscaping occurred in 1851, shortly after the newly formed U.S. Department of the Interior took over jurisdiction of the park. Noted landscape architect Andrew J. Downing was retained to lay out several city park areas. He completed a plan for Lafayette Park before he died in a boating accident the next year, but the national crises leading up to, during, and right after the Civil War (1861-65) delayed further progress.
The one major accomplishment during the period was erection in 1853 of the bronze, equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson that stands in the center of and dominates the park. Cast by sculptor Clark Mills from cannon captured by Jackson from the Spanish in Florida during the period 1812-19, it was one of the first major equestrian statues produced in the country. During the Civil War, troops who guarded the White House camped in the park.
In 1867 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assumed jurisdiction over the area. In 1872, generally adhering to the Downing plan, it carried out the first full-scale landscaping of the park. From then until the 1930's, when the National Park Service acquired jurisdiction, a pattern of routine maintenance was followed, except for the erection at each corner of the square of statues commemorating foreigners who fought alongside the Continental Army during the War for Independence. The first one, placed at the southeast corner in 1891, honors the Marquis de Lafayette. The second, dedicated in 1902 at the southwest corner, commemorates the Comte de Rochambeau. The third, erected in 1910 at the northeast corner, is dedicated to Gen. Thaddeus Kosciuszko of Poland. The final statue, placed that same year at the northwest corner, pays tribute to Prussian military leader Baron Friedrich W. Von Steuben.
A second landscaping project, conducted in 1936-37 by the National Park Service and the Works Progress Administration, enhanced the beauty of the park and made it more accessible to the public. Since that time, except for the incorporation of some of the features of the Downing plan in the 1960's, it has remained essentially unchanged.
Over the years, Lafayette Park has become a center of community life and a public area of national significance. Administered by the National Park Service, it traditionally serves as a gathering place for civic and patriotic organizations as well as any group that wishes to make its views known to the Nation and to the Chief Executive. Special events include memorial tree plantings, wreath-laying ceremonies, and community cultural activities.
Despite extensive urban renewal and expansion elsewhere in Washington, D.C., the Lafayette Park vicinity retains much of its historical flavor and charm. A number of 19th- and early 20th-century buildings around or near the square are of major architectural or historical interest. Five that are associated with individual Presidents or the Presidency in general possess National Historic Landmark status. The first, St. John's Episcopal Church, known as the "Church of the Presidents" and located at the corner of 16th and H Streets, is described separately in this volume.
Another, the Decatur House, at 748 Jackson Place, was the home of Martin Van Buren in 1829-31 while he was serving as Secretary of State. A fine example of a Federal-period townhouse, it was built in 1818 by U.S. naval hero Commodore Stephen Decatur and was the first private home on the square. It has been the residence of several distinguished diplomats and political figures. In later years, during Gen. Edward F. Beale's ownership, President Grant was a frequent guest. Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation operates the residence as a historic house museum.
The third structure, just west of the White House at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street, is the Executive Office Building, which is not open to the general public. An excellent example of French Second Empire architecture, it was built in 1871-88 to house the State, War, and Navy Departments. Presidents who have maintained temporary or part-time offices there include Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Nixon. Other Chief Executives who worked in the building earlier in their careers were Assistant Secretaries of the Navy Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of War Taft, and Vice Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Ford. Today the structure accommodates some of the Office of Management and Budget, as well as part of the White House staff.
Blair House, also a Landmark, erected in 1824 by Dr. Joseph Lovell, Army Surgeon General, is at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1837, the year after his death, noted newspaper editor Francis P. Blair acquired it and for more than a century his socially and politically prominent family owned it. During this time, close personal and political associates Presidents Jackson, Van Buren, Lincoln, and Taft often paid calls, as did some other Chief Executives on special occasions.
In 1942 the U.S. Government purchased the building for use as a guest residence for visiting dignitaries. Six years later, it was joined to the adjacent Lee House, just to the west at 1653 Pennsylvania Avenue, which had been acquired by the Government in 1941. Francis P. Blair had built the latter structure in the 1850's for his daughter and her husband, Samuel P. Lee. President Andrew Johnson occupied it briefly in 1865 while waiting for Mrs. Lincoln to leave the White House.
In the period 1948-52 President Truman and his family, who had also lived in Blair House temporarily upon his assumption of the Presidency in 1945, while Mrs. Roosevelt was vacating the White House, resided in the combined Blair-Lee House while the Executive Mansion was undergoing a major renovation. On November 1, 1950, two would-be assassins tried to shoot their way into the house to attack Truman, but White House guards repelled them. The impressive edifice is 3-1/2 stories high over an elevated basement. The west (Lee) portion is painted brick; and the east (Blair), stucco-covered brick. The structure is not accessible to the public and continues to house official guests, especially foreign chiefs of state.
The fifth Landmark in the historic district that has a Presidential relationship is the Treasury Building (1836-69), which is open to the public. In present room 3434, President Andrew Johnson maintained offices from April 16 to June 8, 1865, immediately after Lincoln's assassination.
A few other buildings in the district have major Presidential associations. The Dolley Madison House, an unpretentious Federal-style structure at the southeast corner of Madison Place and H Street, was built in 1818-20 by Richard Cutts, Dolley's brother-in-law, who had borrowed money for the construction from James Madison. In 1829, after Cutts had lost most of his fortune in unsuccessful business ventures, ownership of the house reverted to Madison, who never lived in it. Upon his death in 1836, Dolley inherited it. During her residence, from 1837 until she succumbed in 1849, she advised various First Ladies and played a prominent role in Washington society. The restored building, now federally owned, is not open to public visitation.
During a renovation of the White House in the summer of 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt occupied an extant house at 736 Jackson Place. Another structure, at 716 Jackson Place, has been restored by the Federal Government for the official use of ex-Presidents. A four-story building dating from the late 1860's, it was once the home of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Many other structures in the district possess historical or architectural importance. Two of these are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Building (1925) and Riggs National Bank (1898). The majority, however, are former private residences that are today owned and used by the Government. One, near the Dolley Madison House, is the Tayloe-Cameron House (1818), known as the "Little White House" during President McKinley's administration because Senator Mark ("Boss") Hanna lived in it.
In recent years, the Federal Government has restored many of the buildings in the district, demolished a few modern ones, and constructed several replicas in a style that harmonizes with the historical setting. As a result, the district now approximates its 19th-century appearance.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004