The Octagon House, nestled in the historic Foggy Bottom neighborhood, testifies to the earliest idea of Washington D.C.’s social and political wealth. Located just a few blocks away from The White House at the suggestion of President George Washington [FIG 2], the structure offers a glimpse back in time into the early developmental years of the new federal city. Occupied by residents such as the wealthy Tayloe family, the American Institute of Architects, and even President James Madison, the Octagon House can facilitate a greater understanding of D.C. history in general.
Commissioned by the rich Virginia plantation owner Col. John Tayloe III between 1799 and 1801, the Octagon House originally played a dual role as both a winter home for the Tayloe’s and a means by which Col. John Tayloe III could involve himself in political life [FIG 10]. To design the building, which was to be located on the corner of 18th St and New York Ave, Col. John Tayloe III chose noted architect William Thornton. Thornton, who also designed famed structures such as the US Capitol, Tudor Place, and others, set out to construct a building that would break from many of the architectural norms that were present in the early 1800s. His design incorporated some of the most sought after luxuries of the early republic. On the entrance level of the house a dining and drawing room, as well as an entrance foyer, were present. On the higher floors, the space was used to incorporate galleries, offices, closets, collections, and conference rooms into the building. Even the basement was put to use, as the kitchen, servants’ quarters, and vault were placed below. The grounds also incorporated slave quarters, which were intentionally designed by Thornton, an abolitionist, to be much more spacious and livable than what was customary in the early republic [FIG 1].
The first residents of the Octagon House, the Tayloe’s, were reputed to be one of the richest families in Virginia during the early republic [FIG 3]. John Tayloe I began the family’s accumulation of wealth during the Revolutionary War as the owner of an ironworks company that supplied basic munitions to patriot soldiers. Upon his death, he passed on his company to his son, John Tayloe II, who would use his inherited wealth to construct one of the largest Virginia plantations, Mt. Airy, in 1764. In the following years, the family accumulated massive amounts of wealth and, as a result, John Tayloe II ramped up his acquisition of slaves. By the time of his death, the Tayloe family had gained ownership of approximately 275 slaves. These slaves, along with the family’s wealth and massive plantation, were all handed down to Col. John Tayloe III. Later on, Tayloe III would use this wealth to acquire the property upon which William Thornton would build the Octagon House [FIG 10]. The family moved into the Octagon in 1801, and would remain in the building until the War of 1812 would cause them to vacate the building in search of safe shelter elsewhere.
During the War of 1812, the Octagon would become the center of the executive branch of American government. When the British attacked Washington D.C. in 1814, they burned several of the federal buildings in the city, including the President’s House. The Octagon House, however, had moved from a residential role into a diplomatic one in the years just prior to the war and in 1814 it was serving as the French Embassy. Thus, due to its role as a diplomatic hub, the British soldiers did not destroy the building. When the British burned the Executive Mansion in 1814, President James Madison and his wife moved into the Octagon House and used it as a temporary residence. In its short time in use by the President, however, the Octagon building housed some very important historical events. In February of 1815, figures such as President James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay came together to sign the Treaty of Ghent in a second floor room at the Octagon House. This treaty would subsequently put an end War of 1812, and with it, provide a victory that signified the resolve for a now tested nation [FIG 7].
In the years following the War of 1812, the Octagon would see many tenants come and go. In 1818, the Tayloe family returned to the house and used it for many of the purposes that it had previously served during their prior occupancy. In 1855, however, the Tayloe family vacated the house, thus leaving it without any form of stability in resident. The house served, at various points, as a catholic girls’ school, a United States Hydrographic Office, and as tenement housing during the progressive era [FIG 4]. With various residents coming in and out of the Octagon for quite a few years, by the late 1800s and early 1900s, the structure showed clear signs of damage and neglect. Luckily, around this same time, Foggy Bottom and the greater Washington area underwent major redevelopment as civil and social change began to take place [FIG 6]. By 1902, the American Institute of Architects, a professional organization that supports architecture in the U.S., gained ownership of the Octagon and moved its headquarters from New York to this house in D.C. [FIG 5]. The A.I.A was particularly drawn to this structure as they felt it was a house with brimming historical value and could eventually be used as a museum [FIG 6].
Though the house was seen as a desirable building for the A.I.A, this could not be said for the rest of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Much of the area was ridden with dirty slums of poor immigrant and black families and those that lived in alley dwellings made up a significant portion of the neighborhood's population. But because of its inner-city neighborhood location, developers were able to see the great civic, social, and commercial potential of the area and therefore geared many of their renewal programs to include this neighborhood. Redevelopment plans such as the McMillan Plan and the National Capital Planning Act of 1952 largely helped to transform the Foggy Bottom area from an undesirable and poor section of D.C. into a middle-class neighborhood with civic and historical relevance. The A.I.A ultimately felt that the Octagon House, as a structure that was greatly integrated into its immediate area of the capital city, deserved its historical spotlight by the middle of the 20th century. After many years of damage, the Octagon House underwent its first round of renovations in 1949 and then later on in the 1960s as preparation for its grand opening as a museum and historical landmark in D.C. 1970. Much of the house was restored to its original Tayloe-style appearance in order to give a realistic account of the history and social implications of this prominent family [FIG 9].
While the area surrounding the Octagon House has changed drastically over time, the structure itself has remained a constant throughout D.C. history [FIG 8]. From its first residents, the wealthy Tayloe family, to later occupants such as President James Madison, the United States Hydrographic Office, and the American Institute of Architects, there has seemingly always been something of historical value happening in the building. The Octagon is a foundational structure of Washington D.C., and understanding its story more completely can aide on in a quest for knowledge about the capital city.
Research by Adrian Sohn, Hannah Fried-Tanzer, Ryan Xeopoleas (2014)
Additional Research, Interpretation and Text by Wm. Bridger Christian, Courteney Doerschel, Helene Douglas, and William Tiwari (2015)
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