OctagonHouse1

The Octagon House

The Octagon House is located at 1799 New York Avenue, Northwest in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of D.C. (MAP), just a block away from the White House.  This three-story brick house was designed by Dr. William Thornton, the original architect of the U.S. Capitol Building, using a plan which combined a circle, two rectangles, and a triangle in order to adapt to the irregular-shaped lot on which it sits.  Why this six-sided building is named the Octagon remains a subject of debate. Some say that even though the main room is a circle, it resembled octagonal rooms common in England; others say it’s for the eight angles formed by the odd shape of the six walls–an old definition of an octagon.  Construction began in 1799, and the house was completed in 1802.  It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Octagon House was initially known as the Colonel John Tayloe III House, after the original owner.  Colonel Tayloe was reputed to be the richest Virginian plantation owner of his time, and built the house in D.C. at the suggestion of George Washington.  For Tayloe, a young entrepreneur with political aspirations, being close to the center of  the Federal government was a powerful incentive to invest in the still-developing national capitol city.  Upon completion in 1802, The Octagon House became one of the most important homes in D.C., welcoming visitors who included Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Stephen Decatur, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, the Marquis de Lafayette, and John C. Calhoun.

During the War of 1812, when British troops were advancing on D.C., the Tayloes approached the French ambassador and offered use of their home as the French embassy. The offer was accepted, and the French ambassador notified the British.  The ambassador also declared the home French territory be designating it as an embassy, and flew the French flag, thus ensuring the house survived intact.

Subsequently, after “The Burning of Washington” by the British in 1814, in which many prominent buildings in D.C. were destroyed, including the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House, Colonel Tayloe offered the use of his home to President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, for use as a temporary “Executive Mansion.”  President Madison used the circular room above the entrance as a study, and signed the ratification papers for the Treaty of Ghent there, which ended the War of 1812.  This treaty still governs relations between the U.S. and Great Britain.

Although Colonel Tayloe died in 1828, Mrs. Tayloe continued to play an active role as a prominent social figure in D.C. and lived in The Octagon until her death in 1855. The Tayloe family sold the house that same year. It was used as a hospital during the Civil War, and as an apartment building in the post-war period.  The Octagon House became the home of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) near the end of the 19th century, which  took ownership of the property in 1902.

The AIA eventually moved its headquarters to a larger building located directly behind it.  Today, the AIA owns the Octagon House, and provides for the building’s continued care and operation through AIA Legacy, Inc.

OctagonHouse2     OctagonHouse3
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