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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Octagon House

Octagon House, Washington, D.C., often claimed to be haunted.
Roughly two blocks southwest of the White House is located one of the most interesting and historic architectural landmarks in the entire city, which is saying quite a bit in a city literally brimming with interesting and historic piles of stone, brick, and mortar. It's also one of the minor mysteries of Washington, D.C. It's called Octagon House and the mystery is: why? It only has six sides. Perhaps some writer sometime took one look, failed to count, and just assumed. (It is, at best, a highly irregular hexagon.) Octagon House, known as the Octagon Museum today, is a little over 200 years old. It was built in 1801, about the same time as the White House, and was the first private residence in the new capital city of Washington, D.C. The Potomac River was then a mere two blocks away (now about ten blocks away). Pennsylvania Avenue was a dirt road at the time. The strangely shaped brick house sat on the corner of Eighteenth Street and New York Avenue which were barely paths chopped through the woods at a time when most of the other streets in the city existed only on paper. The "city," such as it was, mostly amounted to fields, forests, and fens (swamps).

1792 map of Washington, DC. I've indicating future locations
of Octagon House and the White House.
The Octagon House was designed by Dr. William Thornton, the first architect of the Capitol, for a wealthy Virginia planter, Colonel John Tayloe III, as a winter home. Tayloe was also something of an entrepreneur and opportunist with an interest in back room politics, so it was a natural choice of location what with the president living practically next door. Washington didn't grow much in the years that followed--a few stores, boarding houses, livery stables, a dairy, some law offices--all of which the British burned to the ground in 1814, in any case, (including the White House). And when President James Madison and his wife, Dolly, returned to the city in the aftermath of the conflagration, the "White House" was rather black. Octagon House was about the only livable abode in the area. It had been saved from burning by being temporarily occupied by the French Ambassador who declared it to be the French embassy. Recognizing a chance to ingratiate himself with the administration, Tayloe offered his home to the president. It wasn't the White House (then called merely the Executive Mansion), but it served the purpose for six months until the original could be rebuilt (and given its first coat of white paint). And it was there, on February 17, 1815, in an upstairs oval bedroom converted to his office, where President James Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812.

The Octagon House ground floor plan. Count them, I can only see six sides.
After the war, in 1817, the Tayloes made the house their permanent residence and there raised 15 children. The house remained in the family until 1855, after which time it became a girls' school, later a Department of the Navy office, a boarding house, and toward the end of the century, little more than a tenement. Then in 1897, recognizing the architectural and historic significance of the building, the American Institute of Architects leased, and later bought, the architectural landmark, renovating the rundown structure to become their national headquarters. It was within its six walls that the McMillian Commission drew up plans for clearing the Mall, where the site was selected for the Lincoln Memorial, where the first park plan for the city was created, and where the US Commission of Fine Arts was founded. And for a time, during W.W.II, it was even the home of the O.S.S., the forerunner of the C.I.A.

The oldest known photo of Octagon House dates from 1872,
probably when it was in use by the navy.
Today the Octagon is owned by the American Architectural Foundation, and since 1970 has been opened to the public. It houses the oldest museum in the United States devoted to architecture and design. Between 1990 and 1995, the National Historic Landmark enjoyed its fifth restoration, becoming part history museum, part art museum, and part the restored home of the Tayloes as it was during the 1820s. Yet despite all this renovation and historic research into its past, still the mystery remains, what happened to the other two sides?

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