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Reading 2: An Introduction to The Octagon
Colonel John Tayloe III and his family were among the first of America's wealthy, ruling class to settle in the new capital of Washington, D.C. Their new house in the capital was a second home at first. The Tayloes already owned Mount Airy, a large Virginia farm where Tayloe bred racehorses. In the late 1790s, he wanted to build a grand winter home where he could host events and entertain other important and powerful people in the capital. But before he purchased land in Washington, John Tayloe III considered moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or Annapolis, Maryland. Philadelphia was the U.S. capital before Washington, D.C., and Annapolis was the state capital of Maryland. It was also the birthplace of his wife, Anne Ogle Tayloe. George Washington, a family acquaintance, recommended the new capital city and John Tayloe III agreed.
Early Washington was divided into Squares and the Squares were divided into Lots, which could be sold to private citizens. Tayloe paid $1,000 for Lot 8 in Square 170. Lot 8 is between New York Avenue and 18th Street. These are two important routes through the city. In 1800, the land Tayloe bought sat on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River and Tiber Creek, or in in the direction of the National Mall today. From there, people in the house could see the city’s landscape and people in the city could view the house. This was a desirable location. However, the acute angle formed by the intersection of New York Avenue and 18th Street was a challenge for architects.
John Tayloe talked to two well-known architects about a design: Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Dr. William Thornton. Both men were qualified to build a grand home. Latrobe was the architect who designed the President’s House and later worked to design the Capitol Building. Thornton was the first Architect of the Capitol. Tayloe’s architects both wanted to design a Federal Style house to face the street at that location, but Latrobe’s design did not work with the location of the house. The design had a lot of symmetrical angles and features, which were popular with elite homes of the era but would not work with the lot. Tayloe decided to hire Thornton. Thornton’s creative design was for a house that worked with the angle of the streets and the shape of the lot.
Dr. William Thornton arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1793. He was born in the British colonies in the West Indies and earned a medical degree in Scotland. He was also an inventor, painter, poet, and architect. Thornton wrote articles on different topics including astronomy, philosophy, language, medicine, art, and government. His design for The Octagon is an example of his creativity and problem-solving abilities. His first designs for the lot were awkward, but his final design was for a grand home that could be a place for family life and social events, but also a place that fit into the unusually-shaped lot and L’Enfant’s plan for the streets.
Construction began in 1799 and finished in 1801. The house cost John Tayloe $35,000. In 1801, an “amity button” was placed in the large post at the foot of the main staircase. An amity button is a small ivory button. Its placement in the bottom post (called a “newel post”) meant that the owner of the house and the builder of the house finished business on friendly terms. The Tayloes moved to Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1801. The Tayloes supplied themselves and their free servants, enslaved servants, and guests with food from their nearby farm, called Petworth. The family also purchased food from the local market, shops, street vendors, and auction sales of produce from ships.
The Tayloes lived and entertained guests at the house during part of the year for roughly 15 years with one major interruption. In 1814, during the War of 1812, President James Madison and his wife Dolley moved into The Octagon. The British invaded Washington, D.C, on August 24, 1814. They looted and burned public buildings, including the President’s House and the Capitol. John Tayloe offered his home to the First Family after the British left the city and they accepted. The Madisons moved into The Octagon on September 8th, 1814 and stayed until March 1815. The president ran the government and the First Lady, Dolley Madison, continued to host parties. Their occupation of The Octagon told the nation that the president refused to give up on the burned capital city. The War of 1812 ended during their stay. President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent in The Octagon’s second-floor parlor, the circular room above the entrance hall. This treaty officially ended the war between Britain and the United States.
The Tayloes decided to live at The Octagon year-round sometime between 1815 and 1817. John Tayloe died in 1828. His wife, Anne, lived in the house until she died in 1855. Afterward, The Octagon was used as a Catholic school, government office space, and private apartments. The American Institute of Architects bought it in 1902. Today, the American Institute of Architects Foundation operates the house as a museum.
Questions for Reading 2
1) Colonel Tayloe was known as one of the richest men in Virginia in the late 18th century. What evidence is there of this in Reading 2?
2) According to the reading, why did Colonel Tayloe hire Dr. William Thornton to design his house? What design challenge did Thornton overcome?
3)Who lived at The Octagon between 1800-1815? What different roles did these people play in D.C. society?
4) Could the Tayloes and Madisons have been just as successful living in a one-room log cabin? Why or why not?
Reading 2 was adapted from the American Institute of Architects Foundation’s Octagon House docent guide, “Introduction to The Octagon.”