The Octagon House, Washington D.C.


John Tayloe, the wealthiest man in the Virginia of the late eighteenth century, had his summer home at Mt. Airy. His plantation, the largest in the State, was worked by more than five hundred slaves.

When he wanted a winter home, he thought of building at Philadelphia. But George Washington, eager to secure him as a resident of the young Federal City on the Potomac, asked him to consider the erection of a house there. So Mr. Tayloe made an investigation of Washington as a site for a residence, bought a lot for one thousand dollars, and in 1798 commissioned Dr. William Thornton to make the plans for a palatial house. During the construction of the building Washington several times rode by and from the saddle inspected the progress of the work.

Thornton was at the time a well-known man, though he had been born in the West Indies and was for many years a resident there. After receiving his education in Europe, he lived for several years in the United States. During this period he was a partner of John Fitch in the building and trial of the steamboat that for a time ran successfully on the Delaware River, more than twenty years before Fulton built the Clermont. He was himself something of an inventor; he secured a number of patents for a device to move a vessel by applying steam to a wheel at the side of the hull.

He had returned to the West Indies when he read that a prize was to be given for the best plan submitted for the Capitol to be built at Washington. At once he wrote for particulars, and in due time he presented his plans. He was then living in the United States. The plans were considered the best that had been offered. Jefferson said that they ” captivated the eyes and judgment of all,” while Washington spoke of their ” grandeur, simplicity, and convenience.” While these plans were later modified by others, certain features of the Capitol as it appears to-day are to be traced directly to Dr. Thornton’s plans.

At the time of the award he was but thirty-one years old, and had already won a place as a physician, an inventor, and a man of science. He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin, and had received the prize offered for the design for the new building of the Library Company of Philadelphia, in which Franklin was especially interested. Later he was awarded a gold medal by the American Philosophical Society for a paper in which he outlined the method of the oral teaching of deaf and dumb children which is still in use in many institutions.

The building planned by Dr. Thornton for Mr. Tayloe at the northeast corner of New York Avenue and Eighteenth Street, was completed in 1801. At the time it was the best house in Washington. At once, as the Octagon House, it became famous for the lavish hospitality of its. owner.

The next stirring period in the history of the Octagon House was the later years of the second war with Great Britain. On the night of August 24, 1814, when the British Army entered the city, the French minister, M. Serurier, looked from his window and saw soldiers bearing torches going toward the White House. Quickly he sent a messenger to General Ross and asked that his residence be spared. The messenger found General Ross in the Blue Room, where he was collecting furniture for a bonfire. Assured that ” the king’s house ” would be respected, he returned to the minister.

Dr. Thornton, who was at the time superintendent of the patent office, succeeded in persuading Colonel Jones to spare that building, on the ground that it was a museum of the Arts, and that its destruction would be a loss to all the world.

Among the public buildings destroyed was the White House. Mr. Tayloe at once offered the Octagon House to President Madison. On September 9, 1814, the National Intelligencer announced, ” The President will occupy Colonel Tayloe’s large house, which was lately occupied by the French minister.” For more than a year the house was known as the Executive Annex.

Rufus Rockwell Wilson, in ” Washington, the Capital City,” tells how the mansion looked at this time :

” Its circular entrance hall, marble tiled, was heated by two picturesque stoves placed in small recesses in the wall. Another hall beyond opened into a spacious and lovely garden surrounded by a high brick wall after the English fashion. To the right was a handsome drawing room with a fine mantel, before which Mrs. Madison was accustomed to stand to receive her guests. To the left was a dining-room of equal size and beauty. A circular room over the hall, with windows to the floor and a handsome fireplace, was President Madison’s office. Here he received his Cabinet officers and other men of note, listening to their opinions and reports on the progress of the war; and here, also, on a quaintly carved table, he signed, February 18, 1815, the proclamation of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the contest with England.”

The story of this table’s history is interesting. From the Octagon House it went to John Ogle Ferneaux, of King George County, Virginia. He kept it until October 30, 1897, when it was sold to Mrs. A. H. Voorhies, of 2011 California Street, San Francisco. When the fire that succeeded the earthquake of 1906 approached the house, the table was taken away hurriedly. Mrs. Voorhies says, ” We wrapped sheets around the circular part of the table, and in part of the journey, it went turning round as a wheel to a place of safety.” The San Francisco chapter of the Institute of Architects purchased it for $1,000, and sent it to Washing-ton, December 1, 1911.

It is said that on the day the message came to the Octagon House that peace had been declared, Miss Sally Coles, who was Mrs. Madison’s cousin, called from the head of the stairs, ” Peace ! Peace! ” One who was a guest at the time gave a lively account of the scene in the house:

” Late in the afternoon came thundering down Pennsylvania Avenue a coach and four foaming steeds, in which was the bearer of the good news. Cheers followed the carriage as it sped on its way to the residence of the President. Soon after nightfall, members of Congress and others deeply interested in the event presented themselves at the President’s House, the doors of which stood open. When the writer of this entered the drawing room at about eight o’clock, it was crowded to its full capacity. Mrs. Madison—(the President being with the Cabinet)—doing the honors of the occasion; and what a happy scene it was! ”

Mr. Tayloe occupied the Octagon at intervals until his death in 1828. Mrs. Tayloe lived until 1855. By this time the neighborhood had changed, and the property deteriorated. In 1865 it was occupied as a girls’ school. From 1866 to 1879 it was the hydrographic office of the Navy Department. Later it became a dwelling and studio. From 1885 to 1889 it was in the hands of a caretaker, and deteriorated rapidly. At the last eight or ten families of colored people lived within the storied walls.

The Institute of American Architects leased the property in 1899 and later purchased the house for $30,000. It is now one of the sights of Washington. A tablet fixed to the wall relates the main facts of its history.