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The Octagon House

Washington D.C.

Completed in 1801, for Colonel John Tayloe III (1770-1828), of Mount Airy, and his wife, Ann Ogle (1775-1855). The Octagon House survived the burning of Washington D.C. at the hands of the British in 1814. Afterwards, with the White House in ruins, it served as the temporary residence of James Madison (1751-1836), 4th President of the United States, and the Treaty of Ghent was signed there in 1815. From 1870, the house fell into disrepair until it was acquired by the American Institute of Architects. Today, it is a self-guided museum administered by the American Institute of Architects Foundation, and also said to be one of the most haunted houses in the city. 
Tayloe grew up at his family's plantation home, Mount Airy, before being sent to England for his education at Eton College and Cambridge University. On returning to America in 1791, having turned 21, his inheritance made him the wealthiest man in Virginia.

In 1792, Tayloe married Nancy Ogle who had spent her childhood at Belair Mansion in Maryland. The following year, the Tayloes decided to establish themselves among fashionable society, and it was John's close friend, George Washington (1732-1799), who drew their attention away from the fashionable cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore, persuading them to build in Washington D.C.

In 1797, Tayloe paid $1,000 to Gustavus Scott (1753-1800) for a triangular plot of land at the corner of New York Avenue and 18th Street. By 1799, he had employed the architect of the first U.S. Capitol, Dr. William Thornton (1759-1828), to design his townhouse - one of the finest in the country - and work began that year. Though named Tayloe named it The Octagon, the house in fact has only six sides. During it's construction, through a combination of it's expense and unusual shape, it attracted a great many curious eyes, none more so than George Washington (1732-1799) himself, who knew something of architecture through his own work at Mount Vernon.

The three-story, red brick mansion was completed in 1801, at a total cost of $28,476.82. It's unusual shape incorporating an oval central staircase was, in a similar way to Monticello, a shining example to the young nation of what could then be achieved in American residential architecture. Aside from the Coade stone, all other materials were locally sourced while decorative elements and furniture were imported from England.

John and Nancy passed their summers at Mount Airy  and their winters at the Octagon, where they kept between 12 to 18 slaves, including head coachman Harry Jackson and his wife Winney, Nancy's ladies maid. In 1870, Tayloe's son, William Henry Tayloe (1799-1871), gave a description of the house as he remembered it to his own son:

Ascending steps with Iron rails to a Portico, there is a large Circular Hall with Marble floor, heated formerly with two Imported Coal Stoves - with a Hat & Coat closet on one side. Passing under an Arch supported by Columns is the main passage with a beautiful Winding Stair way to the top of the house. Near there between on the right, is the door (mahogany) into the Drawing Room 30 by 20 on 18th Street. A private Stairs run back of the Dining room from the basement to the upper floors. In the basement is the House Keepers room, Store rooms, Wine Cellar, Servants Hall, Kitchen with a Well of fine water and pump in it (at that time).

On the second floor the Circular room over the Hall way, the Library with two closets with Windows. Two chambers over the Dining room & one over the Drawing room, also Linen and Clothes closets. Five chambers & large closets are in the third story. Formerly the roof was flat, with a Wall relieved by Stone work. The view from the top of all Washington City & surroundings with Alexandria in the distance is most beautiful; but the roof leaked... the present roof (is) ugly.

The Garden is inclosed with a Brick wall -with Pillars caped with Stone. In is rear is a two Story House for the Laundry & Servants rooms - the Stable yard paved & in it a Well of good Water. The Stable is a long two Story Building on the back lines of the lots - a commodious Carriage in the Center - the Coach Horse Stable on one side & the Saddle House and Phaeton Horses on the other side. Your GrandFather had his Phaeton & praise (?) & one sometimes two Saddle horses for his own use - in Archy Nashs care. Your Grandmother had the Coach & four Bays with and odd horse in case of lameness. Harry Jackson Coachman. Gowen Lawson Footman.

There is a long brick shed beyond the Stables with Cow Stables. A Horse Box & Pounting rooms - also a Smoke & Meat house. The Ice House is on 18th Street with a Store room over it. The Servants wore Blue Quaker Cut Coats turned up with Red Collars and Pockets gold laced. Red Vests- Breeches, Whitest long stockings, Shoes & Buckles,- in full costume shoulder straps or small Epaulettes.

In politics, Tayloe was a Federalist and in 1799, despite being defeated in his run for Congress, he was elected as both a Delegate and Senator to the Virginia Legislature. Tayloe was well-known for his passion for thoroughbred racing and had established a racecourse at Washington D.C. while serving as President of the Jockey Club. In order to maintain this passion, he purchased a 204-acre farm called Petworth that bordered Georgia Avenue, enabling him to bring up his racehorses from Mount Airy while living at the Octagon.

In 1814, British forces occupied Washington D.C. during the War of 1812. Fearful that his house would be looted or even worse put to the torch, Tayloe asked the French Minister, Louis Sérurier (1775-1860), to assume residence at the Octagon. The French Royal flag was draped over the front door and Sérurier sent a message to British General Robert Ross (1766-1814) to place a guard outside should his troops think of burning it. Ross replied to the minister that the house would be respected as though the French king were there himself. The ruse worked and the house escaped the conflict without so much as a scratch.

As the finest house left standing in the capital and with the White House still smouldering, the Octagon was offered to President James Madison (1751-1836), of Montpelier. For six months he and his wife, Dolley, made their home there and the President's cabinet met there on several occasions. In 1815, when the Treaty of Ghent was written to bring about the end of the hostilities between America and England, it was signed in the Octagon's circular room above the entrance. Following this event, the Octagon played host to one of the largest parties seen in the early 19th century, and even the servants were freely given drinks.

Tayloe died in 1828 and left the Octagon to his two eldest surviving sons, Benjamin Ogle Tayloe (1796-1868) - who was then resident there - and William Henry Tayloe (1799-1871). Their widowed mother, Nancy, continued to occupy the house with several of her daughters, as they always had during the winters. In 1856, the year after Mrs Tayloe died, her sons rented the house and their sisters were forced to move elsewhere. Later that year, Benjamin bought out his brother's half-share in the Octagon for $15,954.

In 1860, Benjamin leased the Octagon to the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle for use by the St. Rose's Technical Institute as a girl's school, before offering it to the Church for $20,000 - which they declined. In 1866, Benjamin rented it for use by the government as the Hydrographic Office. On his death, he left the Octagon to his two surviving daughters daughters - Eugenia Phoebe Tayloe (1835-1913) and Julia Dickinson Tayloe (1838-1872) - on the condition that "none of them live in Washington," at which time the house began to fall into disrepair.

Eugenia outlived her sister and managed by a trust company, the Octagon was rented to a variety of commercial and residential tenants. By 1886, the interior of the once proud mansion had been reduced to the description of "almost squalid". In 1898, 8 or 10 families were reportedly living there and rubbish was said to have been piled four to six feet high in the Drawing Room. This prompted the American Institute of Architects to seize control of the lease in 1899 before purchasing it from Eugenia in 1902 for $30,000. In the 1970s, it was described by George McCue in his book, The Octagon (1976):

The house is well built of brick trimmed with Aquia Creek sandstone. The lot is triangular and fenced in by a high brick wall. The kitchen, stable and outhouses are built of brick and accommodated a large number of both servants and horses. The interior is elaborately finished, the doors of the first story being of mahogany. All the work in the circular vestibule coincides with the circumference of the tower, the doors, sash and glass being made on the circle. The parlor mantle is made of a fine cement composition painted white. The remains of gold leaf show in some of the relieved portions. Leading into the back hall and dining-room are two secret doors in which the wash-boards, chair-boards, etc. run across the door, being ingeniously cut some distance from the actual door, no key holes, hinges or openings showing on the blind side. The knobs and shutter-buttons are of brass and evidently of a special pattern.

The house was renovated again in 1996 and restored to it's original former glory. Today, the American Architectural Foundation owns The Octagon House, and the AIA has since moved its head office to a larger building directly behind it. In 1960, The Octagon House was designated a National Historic Landmark and in 1966 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

References

https://architectsfoundation.org/octagon-museum/history/