Posts Tagged ‘President James Madison’

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The Octagon House

I may sound like I’m getting old by what I’m about to write, but Halloween isn’t what it used to be when I was growing up.  Some of the most popular costumes in recent years have been a twerking former Disney child star, a female prison inmate in an orange jumpsuit, and a fired high school chemistry teacher turned homicidal meth dealer.  I miss the more generic and traditional costumes, like ghosts.  So as I celebrated Halloween on today’s bike ride, I went on a ghost hunt. There are a number of reportedly haunted locations throughout D.C., and today I rode by a few of those places where ghosts and spirits are reported to have been encountered.

The first stop on my self-guided bike tour of D.C.’s haunted locations was The Octagon House, which is reported to be the most haunted residence in the city. It was built in 1801 by Colonel John Tayloe, III, and some members of the Tayloe family are reported to still be residing there today.  Two of Colonel Tayloe’s daughters are said to haunt their former home. The first allegedly died just before the War of 1812.  Colonel Tayloe and his daughter quarreled on the second floor landing over the girl’s relationship with a British officer stationed in the city.  And when the daughter turned in anger to go down the stairs, she “fell” down the stairs.  Or possibly over the railing.  Stories differ.  Either way, she died.  Her apparition has allegedly been seen crumpled at the bottom of the steps, or on the stairs near the second floor landing, and sometimes exhibits itself as the light of a candle moving up the staircase.

The death of the other Tayloe daughter, stories claim, occurred in 1817 or shortly thereafter.   She had eloped with a young man, thus incurring her father’s wrath.  When she returned home to reconcile with her father, they argued on the third-floor landing.  This daughter, too, “fell” to her death.  Her spirit is alleged to haunt the third floor landing and stairs between the second and third floors.

After the burning of the White House in the War of 1812, President James and Dolley Madison briefly lived at The Octagon House as well. Dolley Madison’s spirit is said to have been seen near the fireplace in the main ballroom as well as heading through a closed door to the garden.  Her ghost’s presence is reported to be accompanied by the smell of lilacs, which was her favorite flower.

Other spirits are also said to remain at The Octagon House as well. A slave girl in the house was allegedly killed by being thrown from the third floor landing to the first floor below by a British soldier during the War of 1812.  During the years since eyewitnesses have reported hearing her scream. The specter of a British soldier in a War of 1812 dress uniform was seen by a caretaker named James Cypress in the 1950s.  Perhaps it was the soldier who killed the slave girl.

A gambler shot to death in the home’s third-floor bedroom in the late 19th century has sometimes been seen still in the bed where he died. And ghostly footmen have been seen at the front door waiting to receive guests. Various witnesses have also reported hearing assorted moans, screams, and footsteps in The Octagon House.

The next stop on my ghost ride was the Dolly Madison House, also referred to as the Cutts-Madison House, located at 1520 H Street (MAP), near the northwest corner of Lafayette Square Park.  One of the most reported spirits in all of D.C. is that of former First Lady Dolley Madison. In addition to being seen at The Octagon House, her ghost has been encountered at additional locations, including the White House Rose Garden, and at her home on Lafayette Square. It is in this home that Dolley Madison spent her last years, and where she died in 1849. Since the mid-19th century, it is on the porch sitting in a rocking chair that her ghost has most often been encountered.

I then made a stop at the nearby statue of President Andrew Jackson, located in middle of Lafayette Square Park (MAP) across the street from the White House.  There are a variety of haunted accounts involving the boisterous President Jackson within the nearby White House. Most of the stories center around the canopy bed in the Rose bedroom on the second floor.  Mary Todd Lincoln and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands are but a couple of the notable witnesses to President Jackson’s apparition.

My next stop on this haunted bike ride was the location where Congressman Daniel Sickles’ House used to be.  Located at 717 Madison Place (MAP), it is now the downtown site of the U.S. Court of Claims.

In 1859, Sickles shot and killed Philip Barton Key, who at that time was the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and was the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem.  After learning of Key’s affair with his wife, Teresa, who was only 15 years old when she married the 33-year old Sickles, Sickles approached Teresa’s lover in front of his home and allegedly said, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house. You must die.” He then shot Key. As he lay dying, Key gazed at the window where Teresa would signal him when the coast was clear for their trists. A jury acquitted Sickles after a sensational trial that featured the first use of the temporary insanity defense in U.S. legal history. Since that time Key’s visage has been reported to occasionally appear in the location where Sickles shot him.

I then proceeded to the Walsh Mansion, which currently serves as the Indonesian Embassy and is located at 2020 Massachusetts Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Embassy Row neighborhood.  The most expensive residence in the city at the time it was completed in 1903, the mansion was built by Thomas J. Walsh, a famous gold miner and industrialist. He was also known for giving the famed Hope Diamond to his daughter Evalyn Walsh McLean as a wedding present. However, along with the diamond came its curse.  According to the legend, a curse befell the large, blue diamond when it was stolen from an idol in India – a curse that foretold bad luck and death not only for the owner of the diamond but for all who touched it. Anyway, Evalyn continued to live in the house after her father’s passing until her death in 1947. However, by the time she died she had lost the family fortune and more, and to cover her significant debts, the Walsh Mansion was sold to the government of Indonesia. According to embassy staff, however, Evalyn never vacated the home. Rather, her spirit has been seen several times gliding down the mansion’s grand central staircase.

The Mary Surratt Boarding House was the next destination on my haunted tour of D.C.  Located at 604 H Street (MAP) in the heart of the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, the three-story Federal-style townhouse has been substantially renovated through the years.  But in the mid-1800’s it was a boarding house owned by Mary Surratt, who was convicted and hanged as one of the conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The building currently houses a Chinese restaurant, named Wok and Roll, on the ground floor. But it may also house Mary Surratt’s ghost as well. From the 1870s onward, occupants of the building have claimed that Surratt’s spirit is responsible for the incomprehensible mumbling and whispers, footsteps, muffled sobs, and creaking floorboards which have unnerved them.

I also rode to the Capitol Hill neighborhood today, where the ghost of Joseph Holt is said to haunt the street near where he lived.  Holt was Judge Advocate General of the Army, and presided over the trials of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. During the trials, accused conspirators Dr. Samuel Mudd (who treated assassin John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg) and Mary Surratt (at whose downtown boarding house the conspirators met) were held at the Old Capitol Prison opposite the U.S. Capitol Building. The modern day U.S. Supreme Court Building stands on the site today. After Holt retired, he allegedly became a recluse in his Capitol Hill home. Local residents have told stories of Holt’s ghost walking down First Street in a blue suit and cape, pondering the guilt of Mudd and Surrat as he heads for the site of the Old Capitol Prison.

Lastly, before heading back to my office, I concluded my self-guided haunted bike tour by stopping by the U.S. Capitol Building. Many people would contend that the Capitol is soulless, but it is no stranger to departed souls. The Capitol Building is reputedly haunted by a former President, many past members of the House of Representatives, other government officials, officers who served during the American Revolutionary War, workers who died during its construction, and perhaps most famously, or infamously, a “demon black cat.”

One of the most illustrious ghosts said to haunt the Capitol Building is John Quincy Adams, the nation’s sixth President, who after serving as President went on to serve nine terms as a Massachusetts Congressman. In 1848, at age 81, Adams fell unconscious on the House floor while in the middle of a speech. Lawmakers carried him into the speaker’s office, where he died two days later. Ghost followers contend that his spirit subsequently made its way back to the chamber, now known as Statuary Hall. A plaque there marks the spot where Adams’ desk once stood. It is from that spot, believers attest, that his ghost sporadically redelivers his unfinished speech.

The infamous “demon black cat” is alleged to prowl the halls of Congress, and make appearances just before a national tragedy or change in Presidential administration. It was first seen in the early part of the 19th century, and a night watchman shot at it in 1862. It has also been seen by other night watchmen and members of the Capitol Police. It appeared before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the October 1929 stock market crash, and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The cat has not only been seen in the halls, but has repeatedly appeared in Washington’s Tomb. The Tomb, located two levels below the crypt beneath the Capitol Rotunda, was an original feature of the building, planned as a resting place for George Washington and members of his family. But the Washington family politely declined the offer, and the Tomb now stands empty. Or does it?

The specters of at least two soldiers are also said to haunt the Capitol Building.  A few eyewitnesses have claimed that whenever an individual lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda, a World War I doughboy momentarily appears, salutes, then disappears. A second apparition, which eyewitnesses say is the ghost of an American Revolutionary War soldier, has also appeared at the Washington Tomb. According to several stories, the soldier appears, moves around the unused Washington family catafalque, and then passes through the door into the hallway before disappearing.

Thus having concluded my haunted tour, I headed back to my office.  It was a great bike ride, despite the fact that I did not see, hear, or otherwise sense the presence of any ghosts in a city that seems to be full of them.

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Statue of Albert Gallatin

Abraham Alfonse Albert Gallatin was born in Geneva on January 29, 1761, to an aristocratic Swiss family. He immigrated to America when he was 19 years old, where he became a politician, diplomat, ethnologist and linguist. He served as a Representative, Senator, Ambassador, and he became the fourth and longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury in United States history.  And on this bike ride, I went to see a statue dedicated to him, which is in front of The United States Department of the Treasury Building, located at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP), next door to the White House in northwest D.C.

Gallatin was originally elected to the United States Senate in 1793. However, his political career got off to a bumpy start, and he was removed from office by a 14–12 party-line vote after a protest raised by his opponents suggested he did not meet the required years of citizenship. The dispute that resulted in his removal had important ramifications though. At that time, the Senate always held closed sessions. However, the Senators in the newly established nation were leery of anything which might hint that they intended to establish an aristocracy. So they opened up their chamber for the first time for the debate over whether to unseat Gallatin. Soon after, open sessions for the Senate and a more transparent government became standard procedure.

Gallatin’s brief initial time in the Senate before being removed also had important ramifications for him. Not only did the election controversy add to his fame, but he also proved himself to be an effective opponent of America’s first Secretary of the Treasury’s, Alexander Hamilton’s, financial policies.

Returning home to Pennsylvania, Gallatin found himself embroiled in the Whiskey Rebellion, which involved a whiskey tax imposed in 1791 by Congress at the demand of Alexander Hamilton to raise money to pay the national debt.  Gallatin helped bring about a non-violent end to the conflict just before President George Washington, who had denounced the tax protesters and called out the militia, lead the army into western Pennsylvania to end the rebellion.  As a result of the  popularity he gained in advocating their cause, he was again elected two years later, this time to the House of Representatives, were he served until 1801. There he inaugurated the House Committee on Finance, which later grew into the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Gallatin’s mastery of public finance during his three terms in Congress lead to President Thomas Jefferson appointing “the foreigner with a French accent”, as he was described by his critics, as Secretary of the Treasury in 1801.  He would go on to serve until 1814, under both Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, holding the longest tenure in this office in American history.

Gallatin went on to achieve other accomplishments after leaving the Treasury Department.  But the remainder of his career after serving as Secretary of the Treasury began with just as bumpy a start as his career in government began.  He was nominated to run for vice president, but was forced to withdraw from the race because he lacked popular support.  Gallatin was again offered the position of Secretary of the Treasury by President John Quincy Adams, but turned it down.  After that, however, he went on to become the American ambassador to France, was one of the founders of New York University, and became president of the National Bank of New York City, which was temporarily renamed Gallatin Bank.  His last great endeavor was founding the American Ethnological Society.  And based on his studies of Native American languages, he has been called the father of American ethnology.

But it was his time as Secretary of the Treasury that earned Gallatin the honor of the statue outside of the Department of the Treasury Headquarters.  And it is located on the northern patio of the building, which is the opposite side of the building from the statue of his rival, Alexander Hamilton.

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The Washington Monument

I most often tend to ride to and then write about the D.C. area’s lesser-known, off-the-beaten-path monuments, memorials and other attractions. But for this lunch time bike ride I chose to do the opposite. I visited one of the most well known and widely recognized monuments in not only D.C., but the entire world – the 555-foot and 5-inch obelisk known as The Washington Monument. But what I find most interesting about the monument are details about it that are not well-known. Not only did the simplistic appearance of the monument turn out significantly different than what was originally envisioned, it is not located in the place where it was originally intended. And it isn’t even the first Washington Monument in D.C.

Just days after Washington’s death in 1799, a Congressional committee proposed that a pyramid-shaped mausoleum be erected within the Capitol which would also serve as a monument to the nation’s first president. However, a lack of funds, disagreement over what type of memorial would best honor him, and the Washington family’s reluctance to move his body from his Mount Vernon home prevented progress on the proposed project.

Years later, on the 100th anniversary of President Washington’s 1732 birthday, the Washington National Monument Society was formed by former President James Madison and then current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and began accepting donations to build a monument. Four years later, a renewed interest in construction a monument resulted in a design competition being held by the Society. The winning design came from architect Robert Mills, who also designed a number of Federal buildings in D.C., including the Department of Treasury building, the U.S. Patent Office Building, and the old General Post Office. Mills’ design featured a flat topped obelisk topped, with a statue depicting a Roman-like Washington in a chariot in front of it, along with a rotunda and colonnade, all surrounded by 30 statues depicting the country’s Founding Fathers and Revolutionary War heroes. Excavation and initial construction of the monument began on July 4, 1848.

However, a lack of funding resulted in the need to redesign the monument. In 1876 the current obelisk design was proposed. It was also during that year that President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill for the Federal government to fund completion of the monument, which had been stalled by the Civil War. The monument’s construction took place during two phases, from 1848 to 1856, and from 1876 to 1884. A horizontal line of different colored marble from Massachusetts which was used when marble from the original quarry in Maryland was not available is visible approximately 150 feet up the monument, and indicates where construction resumed in 1876.  There is actually a third, less-noticible shade of marble that was used when the builders, dissatisfied with the Massachusetts marble, switched to another quarry in Maryland for the final marble used in the monument.  Thus, there are actually three shades to the exterior of the monument.

In addition to a change in design, a change in location also occurred. Originally, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the city’s architect, had planned for the memorial to be placed due south of the President’s Mansion (now known as the White House), and directly West of the Capital Building. However, the soil at that spot proved too unstable to provide the necessary support for the massive obelisk that had been proposed. So the planned site was moved. The present day monument is 119 meters southwest of the planned site, which is marked by a stone and plaque called the Jefferson Pier.

Delays in construction of the Washington Monument were due to the halting of construction between 1854 and 1877 due to a lack of funds, infighting within the Washington National Monument Society, and the intervention of the American Civil War. It was finally completed in 1888 after more than 40 years of construction, which had begun in 1848. During the interim, however, a comparatively modest monument in the form of an equestrian statue depicting Washington riding his horse during the Battle of Princeton was constructed.  Now known as The Lieutenant General George Washington Statue, it was completed in 1860, more than a quarter of a century before the completion of the more well-known monument.

Located at 2 15th Street (MAP) near Madison Drive in downtown D.C., there are many other details and things you may not know about the monument that has become a centerpiece of the National Mall. For example, it held the title as the tallest structure in the world at the time it was completed. It lost that title in 1889 with the completion of the Eiffel Tower. However, the Washington Monument remains the world’s tallest stone structure as well as the world’s tallest obelisk. The monument stands as the tallest structure in D.C., and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future because, by law, no other building in the national capitol city is allowed to be taller than Washington Monument.

Some other interesting facts about the Washington Monument include the following.  The Masonic gavel previously used by George Washington in the laying of the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol Building in 1793 was also used in the Washington Monument’s 1848 cornerstone ceremony, that had an eclectic guest list which included three future presidents, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, as well as Dolley Madison and Alexander Hamilton’s widow, Betsey Hamilton and, of course, the then-current President, James K. Polk. Also, there are numerous items and copies of important documents contained in a zinc case in the recess of the monument’s time capsule-like cornerstone, including: the Holy Bible; copies of the Constitution of the United States Declaration of Independence; a portrait of Washington; a map of the city as it was at that time; the 1840 United States Census; all national coins then in circulation including the $10 gold eagle; an American flag; the Washington family coat of arms, and; newspapers from 14 states.

Additionally, the obelisk rests on an artificially constructed knoll that was designed to hide the original foundation. The monument is hollow on the inside, but its inner walls are set with 189 carved memorial stones, which were donated by individuals, cities, states, Native American tribes, companies, foreign countries, and even the pope. There are 897 steps in the staircase that leads to the top of the monument. The walls at the monument’s base are 15 feet thick. The Monument’s 36,491 white marble ashlar blocks, weighing a total of 90,854 tons, are held together by just gravity and friction, and no mortar was used in the process. And lastly, there are lightning rods at the top to protect the structure from lightning strikes, as well as eight synchronized blinking red lights, two on each face, which serve as warning lights to keep aircraft from striking the structure.

So now that you know a little more about the monument that is not quite as simple as it initially appears, I recommend you go see the Washington Monument for yourself.  Whether it is your first time or you have seen the monument before, you may find that you have a new appreciation for it.

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The United States Botanic Garden

The United States Botanic Garden

The United States Botanic Garden is a living plant museum that informs visitors about the importance, and often irreplaceable value, of plants to the well-being of humans and to the earth’s fragile ecosystems. During the late 18th Century it was the dream of a number of key political figures, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, to have a national botanic garden at the seat of government. In 1820, President James Monroe set aside 5 acres for a “national greenhouse,” and the U.S. Botanic Garden was established by an act of Congress later that year, making it the oldest continually operating botanic garden in this country. The garden “was formally placed under the jurisdiction of the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress in 1856 and has been administered through the Office of the Architect of the Capitol since 1934. It is located near the U.S. Capitol Building at 1st Street & Maryland Avenue (MAP) in southwest D.C.

The Botanic Garden grows and displays a variety of plants. The staff keeps computerized records on important botanical collections used for exhibition, study and exchange with other institutions. The Garden’s noteworthy collections include economic plants, orchids, begonias, carnivorous plants, cacti and succulents, bromeliads, epiphytes, palms, and cycads and ferns set in a Dinosaur Garden. However, of all the different plants and exhibits, my favorite remains the recent blooming of a rare titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum).

Public viewing of titan arum plant in bloom has occurred only a limited number of times in the United States, and this unique plant coming into flower is as spectacular as it is rare. The time between flowerings is unpredictable, which can span from a few years to a few decades. And when the special event happens, the bloom lasts only 24 to 48 hours, before it quickly collapses. Some people travel around the world hoping to see a titan arum at the moment it flowers. For botanists and the public, being “in the right place at the right time” to see one of these magnificent plants in bloom can be an once-in-a-lifetime treat. There have been only 150 recorded instances of blooming since records began.

The particular plant that was on display at the Botanic Garden is approximately eight years old, and is the largest specimen of the fourteen plants in the Botanic Garden’s possession. The plant on display was the size of a penny the last time there had been a blooming specimen at the Botanic Garden. But by the time it was on display, it was approximately 250 pounds, almost nine feet tall, and was experiencing its first ever bloom.

Part of the magic of the titan arum comes from its great size – it is the largest known unbranched flower in the world. In its natural environment it can grow to a height of 12 feet, and when blooming has been known to grow an inch per hour. However, it is more widely known for its odoriferous qualities. It is commonly referred to as the corpse flower because its fetid odor is often compared to the stench of decomposing flesh. The botanist charged with the care of this particular plant has stated that it gives off a scent “like a very dead elephant.” Its putrid smell is most potent during peak bloom at night into the early morning. The flower also generates heat, which allows the stench to travel further. This combination of heat and smell efficiently attracts pollinators, such as dung and carrion beetles, from across long distances.

Even if a titan arum is not in bloom, I highly recommend visiting the United States Botanic Garden. And as an added bonus, when you visit the Botanic Garden at any other time, it does not smell like decomposing flesh.

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St. John's EpiscopalChurch

St. John’s Episcopal Church

On this bike ride I rode to St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square.  An historic church located in the heart of our nation’s capital at 16th and H Streets (MAP), St. John’s is across the street from Lafayette Square Park and near the White House in downtown D.C.   It is informally known as the “Church of the Presidents,” a nickname it earned because every sitting President, beginning in 1816 with James Madison, has been a regular or at least ­an occasional attendee.

Officially organized as a parish in 1815, the church was named for Saint John, the Evangelist.  The church’s building was designed by the “Father of American Architecture,” Benjamin Latrobe, one of the architects of the U.S. Capitol Building and the architect of The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also called the Baltimore Basilica, which was the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the United States, and among the first major religious buildings constructed in the nation after the adoption of the Constitution.  Construction of St John’s was completed and the first service held in October of 1816.  In 1820, the portico and tower were added, and in 1966,  St. John’s Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Church of the Presidents also has a “President’s pew.”  President Madison first established the tradition of a President’s pew, selecting pew 28 for his private use in 1816.  During subsequent renovations over the years, the pews were renumbered, including the President’s pew.  President John Tyler paid for its use in perpetuity by Presidents of the United States.  Today, the President’s pew is pew 54, and remains reserved for the President’s use when in attendance.

Another historic aspect of St. John’s Church is the bell in the steeple.  Cast by Paul Revere’s son, Joseph, at his Boston foundry in August of 1822, it weighs nearly 1,000 pounds.  It was installed at St. John’s in November of that same year, and has been in continuous service ever since.  In addition to signaling a call to services, the bell has also served as an alarm bell for the neighborhoods and public buildings in the vicinity of the church.

From its historic origins in our country’s early days, to the founding of an orphanage in 1868 to serve children of the Civil War, to its modern-day ministry in D.C. and throughout the world – St. John’s continues its traditions of the past while having a present-day effect on our nation and our world.

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The Samuel Francis Du Pont Memorial Fountain at Dupont Circle

The Samuel Francis Du Pont Memorial Fountain at Dupont Circle

As a prologue, I should state that if in the following narrative you notice discrepancies in the spelling of the family name, it is because there is a lack of agreement on one correct way to spell it, even within the family.  For purposes of the traffic circle, the park, and the surrounding neighborhood, the city spells is Dupont.  Samuel himself used Du Pont.  And various family members go by Du Pont, du Pont, or duPont.  They all, however, refer to the same family.  With that out of the way, let’s move on to the memorial fountain.

In 1871, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction of a traffic circle, then named Pacific Circle, as called for in architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for the national capitol city.  It was constructed in northwest D.C. at the confluence of five streets – Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire Avenues, and P and 19th Streets (MAP).  Its name was changed to Dupont Circle approximately a decade later, when Congress renamed the circle and authorized the placement of a statue there in order to memorialize Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont, in recognition of his military service.

A statue of Samuel Du Pont was sculpted by Launt Thompson, and subsequently erected in the traffic circle in 1884.  The interior of the circle was also turned into a park, and landscaped with flowers and ornamental trees.  However, a number of members of the prominent Du Pont family thought that the statue was an insufficient tribute to their ancestor, and obtained permission to replace it with what they thought would be a more fitting memorial. This is thought to be the only instance in which a group managed to remove a statue from a location in D.C. and replace it with their version of a more proper monument.  The original statue was subsequently removed, and later erected in Rockford Park in Wilmington, Delaware, where it remains today.

The Du Pont family commissioned Henry Bacon and Daniel Chester French, the architect and sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial, to create a memorial to more fittingly capture the significance and stature of Samuel Du Pont.  The resulting memorial was a double-tiered white marble fountain, which features carvings on the fountain’s shaft of three allegorical nude figures symbolizing the arts of ocean navigation:  the sea; the stars, and; the wind.  The marble carving was executed by the renowned Piccirilli Brothers, who also sculpted the colossal Abraham Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial, worked on the National Archives Building in D.C., and fashioned the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

Formally entitled The Samuel Francis Du Pont Memorial Fountain, the fountain includes an inscription which reads, “Samuel Francis Dupont – Rear Admiral, United States Navy, 1803-1865, This Memorial Fountain Replaces a Statue Erected by the Congress of the United States in Recognition of His Distinguished Services.”  It is owned by the National Park Service, and is a contributing monument to a group of statues entitled, “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.,” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city.  They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

The man memorialized by the fountain, Samuel Du Pont, began his long and illustrious naval career at an early age through his family’s close connections with President Thomas Jefferson, who helped secure him an appointment as a midshipman by President James Madison at the age of 12.  Ironically, by the time he became an officer he had begun to openly criticize many of his senior officers because he believed they had only received their commands through political influence and were incompetent.

Despite going on to eventually be in charge of the largest fleet ever commanded by an American officer at that time, the theme of political connections would continue to recur throughout his career.  As an enthusiastic supporter of naval reform, he oversaw the removal of over 200 naval officers.  But when those under fire called upon friends in Congress, Du Pont himself became the subject of heavy criticism, and a subsequent review of the dismissals resulted in the reinstatement of nearly half of those removed.  And near the end of his career, when he was removed from command as a result of being blamed for a significant defeat during the Civil War, Du Pont attempted to enlist the help of Congressman Henry Winter Davis, as well as garner the support of President Abraham Lincoln, in persuading the Navy to adopt his official report of the incident that led to his removal.  The Navy did not.

Despite intended as a memorial to his otherwise long and distinguished naval career, I find it also appropriate that the fountain that memorializes a military man so intrinsically involved in the political realm and patronage throughout his career is located in the city that is our nation’s hub for political influence.

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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.

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