Washington DC – Around Lafayette Square

When Charles Sumner took Thackeray on a drive about Washington, the Sumner sensibilities were intensely wrought up in the effort to keep the distinguished novelist from seeing the statue of Andrew Jackson, in the center of Lafayette Square. As the carriage passed Sumner talked with extreme animation, the while obscuring Thackeray’s vision by poking his head forward!

On the whole it is considered likely that this Jackson statue has given more genuine pleasure to people in general than any other statue in the city. Jackson is upon a ramping, caracoling steed. The statue is really a marvel of balancing, as the horse stands with its front feet high in the air and General Jackson’s old-time chapeau is held martially aloft.

One wonders how it all retains balance, as there is no assisting support of any sort. It has a curious toy-like quality, from its prancing play-like pose and from looking small among the large old trees.

The statue was made from cannon captured in Jackson’s campaigns. If you walk directly toward it and a little to the right, you will see an astonishing sight. The old hero, who was never scared in his life, has from this one point of view the aspect of hair on end, eyebrows up, alarmed eyes, and with the horse seeming to share his terror.

Lafayette Square, once an apple orchard given by the stubborn old David Burns who loved to oppose even Washington, is now a charming parklike space of old trees and billowy greenery opposite the north front of the White House, and extending from Pennsylvania Avenue to H Street. Its name was given it by Washington himself, and it is separated from the White House by the width of Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House grounds. Its landscape gardening is so largely evergreen that it is a place of beauty in winter as well as in summer. When one looks upon it one realizes that here is no ephemeral gardening it could be left to itself for a generation and still be, like the ancient Italian gardens, a spot of beauty. This foreign touch is added to by the statued foreign friends of the nation here in the square.

In the corner nearest the State, War, and Navy Department stands a very military looking Rochambeau, or, to give him his full set of names, Comte de Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur. In the corner nearest the Treasury Building stands Lafayette, a bronze figure in the uniform of a Continental general. Each of the four corners of the square has a monumented foreigner: here are the four principal foreign friends who fought for our nation. In one of the H. Street corners is the statue of the remark-able German general, Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand, Baron von Steuben, who had been aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great and be-came the drill-master of the Revolutionary armies: and a most efficient drill-master he proved himself. He stands in bronze in full uniform, cloaked and queued, a capable military figure.

In the fourth corner opposite the new War Risk building stands Koseiuszko, whose first name is much like his second, being Tadeusz. What excel-lent spellers the Poles must needs be! This statue, set amid the lovely greenery of the square, calls to mind the peaceful garden at Varese in northern Italy in which the heart of the unquiet Kosciuszko lies buried.

Upon this statue, standing entirely by itself, is one of the funniest inscriptions that is anywhere to be seen!—the line, “And Freedom shrieked when Kosciuszko fell.” There was a time when the aver-age American was fully familiar with this shrieking line, but what an alarming statement it must seem to the American citizen of to-day; and to the foreigner, no matter how intelligent, it must be more unintelligible still. Even the traveler from Kosciuszko’s own land would be utterly bewildered and, carrying the shrieking phrase back to Europe, would there spread the news from Pole to Pole.

A feature of these four statues of foreigners is that in this city, so crowded with bronze equestrian American officers, horses were not provided for these highly placed foreign generals : and on the whole, one thinks that an officer looks better on foot.

At the northern edge of Lafayette Square, looking as directly across at the White House as the meridianal Sixteenth Street permits, is a group of a few houses that have been the homes of particularly well known Washingtonians.

At the very corner of Sixteenth Street, and looking across at St. John’s Church, is a broad fortress-like building with a loop-holed and arched entrance and a two-towered facade. Here lived John Hay. He began public life as one of the private secretaries of Lincoln, and wrote, with another private secretary, a life of the great President which is a veritable mine of information. But the public have always persisted in looking on John Hay’s principal claim to fame as based on two early short poems.

“I don’t go much on religion, I never ain’t had no show; But I’ve got a middling tight grip, sir, On the handful o’ things I know.”

This is from “Little Breeches,” and is the kind of thing that the American public will devour with infinite gusto; and as to “Jim Bludso “—well,

“He seen his duty, a dead-sure thing, And went for it thar and then; And Christ ain’t a-going to be too hard, On a man that died for men.”

He wrote a sad little poem, “The Stirrup Cup,” beginning with its thought of death:

“My short and happy day is done, The long and dreary night comes on; And at my door the Pale Horse stands, To carry me to unknown lands.”

John Hay won high rank as an ambassador, and as Secretary of State, but as high as this fame and as high as his “Life of Lincoln” is his fame through his early verses.

A gentle soul, he seems to have been; no one envying him his public advancement nor the wealth which came to him through marriage.

Tucked in next door to John Hay and looking squarely out across Lafayette Square lived Henry Adams, son of the American Minister to Great Britain during the Civil War, grandson of John Quincy Adams, and great-grandson of John Adams. Henry Adams was filled with a full measure of New England spirit. He wrote some volumes of history of the period of Jefferson and Madison, always as if before him was the necessity of defending his family forefathers and always with inability to understand the men of the South—or himself.

He wrote his “Education,” widely read, greatly talked about, tragically showing that he waited for years and years for public recognition which never came. He bitterly criticised those who did not appreciate him. In the course of his life, he knew at the White House a dozen Presidents. He was a great traveler and knew the great people of the earth. Grant, one of those who did not appoint him to any-thing, was archaic according to Adams, and “should have lived in a cave and worn skins.” General Lee was a man of “intellectual commonplace.”

A strange, a brooding man, Adams refused his wife’s request to cut a door through a partition for the convenience of spirit visitors. In his biography he would not mention his one work, his history. Many think that what he wrote of Mont San Michel and Chartres points out the Norman heritage that has come down even to Americans of to-day. Henry Adams is worth knowing and thinking about because he so markedly shows how a man may fail even though carefully prepared to succeed.

The old rambling, long-fronted house with huge iron-studded coach doors, and shell-topped niches and great wistarias, is the great house of Daniel Webster when he shone as Secretary of State. Here he lived in a whirl of dinner-giving, treaty-making and glory, supported by donations, twenty-five thou-sand dollars at a time from Boston, from New York and other sources. This great man had strange and lax ideas in accepting money, as the rich men of Boston and New York knew. He accepted this house as a gift; but even with the generous donations made him, for the purpose of maintaining the establishment, he found it impossible to keep up the full round of entertainment and living and removed to simpler quarters. (In the spring of 1922 this house is being torn down.)

The contemporaries of Webster consider a story of his native place as illustrative of his standards. One Fourth of July he and his brother Ezekiel were given a little money for holiday spending. When the boys came back their mother asked Daniel what he had done with his money. He said: “Oh, I bought some cake, candy, lemonade and a pack of firecrackers.”

Then the mother turned to Ezekiel, “And what did you buy with your money?”

“Oh, Daniel borrowed mine.”

Meanwhile this old mansion remains as a delightful impression, with its great drawingrooms and its great walled garden and trees, and its setting in Lafayette Square, of an important American past, such as the making of the Webster-Ashburton treaty and the dinners and feasting that accompanied it.

Since the passing of Webster, the most interesting occupant of the house has been the late W. W. Corcoran, he of the Art Gallery and a wide line of benefactions.

It was long after Webster’s day, that a magnificent ball was given in this house by De Montholon the French Minister, by the special order of Louis Napoleon. Washington has always remembered as a special feature, that Kate Chase Sprague was there as a bride, and that she wore a gown of white and green with a tiara of emeralds and diamonds. She was remarkably beautiful, but more than one commented on the ill luck of a bride wearing green, and this was remembered later, when the domestic tragedy of her life came.

A trifle farther along on H Street and just before reaching Seventeenth the historian Bancroft lived and wrote for twenty years. He loved Washing-ton as a place in which to meet people and to have access to books of reference. The house is high-set and square with very large windows and a beautiful doorway, a house recently given over to business, and at present occupied by a shop for women’s hats, an inviting looking book-shop—a most fitting place for one—and the shop of a military tailor who was recently elected the head of the tailors of the United States.

An elderly friend of mine who was a personal friend of the historian told me years ago, what he said was a highly naive reason why Bancroft left his footnotes off the 1876 edition of the history. Bancroft, it would seem, complained that readers used his notes only for the purpose of criticism, which they expressed in letters to him or to various editors, claiming that his references did not sup-port his general statements, whereupon he decided to leave out notes altogether.

The most interesting church in Washington is St. John’s, at the corner of Sixteenth Street and Lafayette Square. It faces the John Hay house, its side windows look into the Square. It was designed in 1816 by Latrobe. The White House was the only building that bordered on Lafayette Square before the conclusion of the War of 1812. The church is of brick, covered with stucco, and is in the form of a Latin Cross. One of its pews is set apart for the President of the United States, and is frequently used as intended.

The general effect is of a little cream-colored Greek temple, surmounted by a New England belfry in three graduated sections topped by the tiniest of gold domes, and an arrow vane of gold. A. largo fan-light is over the plain front door. The porch pediment is supported by six charming ungrooved pillars. It is in some respects an adorable little old church, but fresh gilding and new glass of an unattractive color have lessened the lovely old-time effect of it.

The queer little ends of every pew are of cast iron painted to look like walnut, and the pews are smoothly covered with rose-colored damask, making a delightful color effect. Some of the pews have personal furnishings, such as little desks on four slender legs—with lock and key.

Bulfinch the architect admired little St. John’s Church although it was a rival who built it, and he loved to tell of one of the rectors, old Mr. Hawley, who denounced all other sects very vehemently. The rector was a gentleman of the old school, and according to Mrs. Gouverneur, who wrote one of the best books of reminiscences of the city’s social life, he always wore knee-breeches and shoe-buckles,

In the War of 1812 Hawley had commanded a company of divinity students at New York, enlisted there for the protection of the city. It was certainly a matter of regret that the peppery old divine was not on hand in Washington with his company. When he was ordered away to the front, he refused to go, and when later he took charge of St. John’s Church it gave Admiral Decatur an excuse to evade church service because, so he said, he would not listen to a man who refused to obey orders.

Dr. Smith Pyne was a later rector and was often a guest at the home of General Scott. Full of fun, he was the life of the general’s dinner parties and some of his quips have come down to us, as that of addressing the general, who was famous for his turtle soup, as Marshall Tureen. When Ole Bull was in Washington he was the guest at dinner with Dr. Pyne, and the old rector quietly remarked to the company, that “if honorary degrees were conferred, our friend Ole Bull would be Fiddle D. D.” An-other of his jests was evoked when a dentist was remodelling his house and Dr. Pyne was asked what order of architecture it was, to which he replied, “Tuskcan of course.”

General Scott, who so often entertained Pyne, was a great epicure, as was Webster. It was of the dinners of that day that Webster used to say that a good dinner is “the climax of civilization.”

Scott’s love for dinners once led him into bad politics, for he began a note to Secretary of War Marcy, meaning to be easy and pleasant, with the words “After a hasty plate of soup.” He supposed his note was personal, but Marcy was his political foe and maliciously made the note public, thus succeeding in making Scott seem ridiculous.

St. John’s Church witnessed an impressive funeral ceremony in 1902 over the body of Lord Pauncefote, when Roosevelt was President; and Roosevelt threw stiff formality aside when he called upon the widow, and he threw formality aside when he ordered out fifteen hundred troops to line the way from the Connecticut Avenue house, the British Embassy, to the church, where he ordered other de-tails to make it a formal state funeral and then sent the body home in an American warship. And it is one of the little facts of history that are worth remembering, that although our Constitution named among the duties of our President that of receiving “ambassadors and other public ministers,” no President had the opportunity for over a century to act on so much of the clause as referred to ambassadors; for not until 1893 did we have an ambassador here, Great Britain finally setting the quickly-followed example and raising the rank of Pauncefote from that of minister to that of ambassador.

On the Madison Place side of Lafayette Square stands a house still known as “The Little Capitol”—on account of its having been for some years the home of Senator Hanna. It is a buff house of distinguished appearance with a magnificent wistaria draped over the front balcony and a walled garden entered at the side. It won its colloquial name through Hanna’s influence over President McKinley. It is a romantic looking old house, and there-fore one is not surprised to find that a Duchess of Marlborough was born there.

The surroundings of Lafayette Square, altogether charming as they have been for a century, seem entirely to be doomed. To almost every one this little square has represented Washington : it has seemed the heart and in some respects the heartbreak of the city. But it is to be “improved” out of all recognition. Already the Treasury Department has put up, to supplement the central Treasury Building, a grand new building directly across the street, with underground connections—a grand building but not in keeping with the traditions of old Lafayette Square. This may have been necessary, but there was no necessity whatever for giving prodigious space to the War Risk building at the northeast corner of the Square.

It is a corner building of great height and, with its immense number of windows, it fits the old English rhyme, “Like Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.” It gives the impression of surely being the largest office building in the world, with desks for over fourteen thousand. It is a vast complexity of modern office tubby holes. It was probably quite necessary for war needs, but there was absolutely no reason for putting it in such a beauty-breaking location as was chosen.

Another great break in the old-time air of the neighborhood of Lafayette Square will be the building of the National Chamber of Commerce, which seems to have been decided upon for Connecticut Avenue and H Street. In addition architects and landscape gardeners have been encouraged to make all sorts of elaborate plans for the entire four sides round about the Square.

Diagonally facing the War Risk Building, is the home of the Cosmos Club, in some respects the scientific center of Washington; and for many years be-fore it came to its present occupancy it was the home of Dolly Madison after the death of her husband. It is a three-storied house, with its entrance on H Street. It fronts directly on the greenery of Lafayette Square with excellent windows and with a black iron balcony, and now it is covered with rough buff stucco.

Dolly Madison was so absolutely a social ruler even after her husband’s death, that any man who should have the temerity to call at the White House on New Year’s Day, and not proceed immediately afterwards to the home of Mrs. Madison, would at once be put socially in the black book. It helped Mrs. Madison in a very practical way, her husband having left her financially involved, that Congress saw fit to pay her thirty thousand dollars, a large sum in those days, for the papers and diaries of James Madison.

Where the Belasco Theater now stands there formerly stood a building used alternately as a boarding house and club house and it was directly in front of that building and under the trees that General Sickles shot down and killed young Key. The Sickles home was on the opposite side of Lafayette Square, with its front door approached by a semi-circular stair, and it has always been believed that Sickles, watching from a window of the club house, saw his wife signalling Key. Nothing was ever done to Sickles in the way of punishment as his act was considered justified, and the killing of Key has always been looked upon as one of the memorable tragedies of the city. And this remorseless General Sickles was the same man who was known in the closing years of his life in New York as the devotee of tulip beds under his windows on Fifth Avenue!

The whole of Lafayette Square is lovely in the early spring, especially with the tender glory of the yellow forsythias.

The great square somber house from which Commodore Decatur walked out early one morning to fight his duel with Commodore Barron stands on the northwest corner of the square. It is astonishingly gloomy and bare. It is of red brick and brown stone. A fascinating high brick garden wall, matted with English ivy, extends along the square. On either side of the front door stands a pair of high-set wrought-iron lanterns with slender supports. Four great chimneys are on the eaves’ line of the roof, and the house extends far back along the edge of the H Street sidewalk in a line of kitchens and wood-houses with, at the end, a great arch for the coach-door.

Mrs. Decatur had no idea of what had taken her husband away, and there was a pleasant gathering at the house that evening and Mrs. Cutts, the sister of Dolly Madison and whose daughter was to be the wife of Stephen A. Douglas, left an account of their sitting, laughing and talking around the table, when the news came, whereupon Mrs. Decatur fell unconscious to the floor, and Dolly Madison and Mrs. Cutts cared, when he arrived, for the wounded Admiral, who died shortly before midnight.

It is an amazing fact that although the house was built by Decatur in 1819, and he died there in 1820, this short occupancy has made it known for over a century as the Decatur House, although great enough men afterwards lived there to have Decatur’s name forgotten. Henry Clay was for a time an occupant. Martin Van Buren was an occupant ; and an odd looking window on the garden side of the building was cut by Van Buren so that from it he could receive and return signals with his political chief, President Jackson, who wanted to be able to communicate with him at any time from the White House.

It is curious that, of the few houses on the square, one on the east and one on the west should be associated with sinister influence on the White House.

After living on the west side of the square, Clay bought a building site on the Madison Place side. Clay won the money for the purpose by a successful card-playing bout, and Mrs. Clay, when spoken to about it, said calmly that she never objected to her husband’s playing because he always won! After a while he is said to have traded the land for a jack-ass brought from abroad by Commodore Rogers, a jackass of distinguished pedigree; and out in Kentucky the tradition is still preserved that that jack-ass was the progenitor of the mules of Kentucky who have achieved honorable distinction as “army mules.”

Most interesting of all the private homes of Washington is what has always been known, on account of its shape, as “the Octagon,” which is really a polyhedron; and neither is it quite octagonal on the inside. It is only two blocks west of the White House and its neighborhood has recently become most interesting through the proximity of the remarkable line of semi-public buildings facing the White House Park. The Octagon stands at the obtuse-angled corner of New York Avenue and Eighteenth Street, and was built about a century and a quarter ago by a member of one of the most distinguished of early Washington families, Colonel John Tayloe, and was designed by Thornton, the architect of the Capitol.

Its front is on a curve, and its sides and back are in queer angles and in all it is most curiously effective. It is three stories high with a high basement. It is of brick with white marble entablatures and was built within sight of the White House. Its front door, convexly curved with little pillared portico, is approached by a short flight of stone steps, and is charmingly fan-lighted.

The door-handles are of chiseled brass; and looking closely you see that the acanthus of the cornice is repeated in the little graven leaves on the handles.

Entering the house, you find yourself in a round hall, over twenty feet in diameter, beautifully corn-iced in triple design. It is tesselated with alternate black and white marble. The building has charming mantel-pieces, and there are two ancient iron heaters topped with admirable black iron urns, one on each side of the hall and each in a little alcove. You go on through an arch, with a fluted pillar on each side. The arch is topped with a design which, contradictorily, is at the same time simple and elaborate. A curving stair leads up, encircling the hall in its rise. At the right, one flight up, is a large room, with a magnificent marble fireplace, with dancing figures on either side; the old drawing-room of the mansion. In every direction you see some-thing exquisitely designed.

Nor is the charm confined to the building, for be-hind it the grounds widen out into a delightful brick-walled garden, with box bushes bordering an old brick path, and ivy thick over the ground and a few old ivy-clad trees.

The building is now the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects, the American Federation of Arts, and the Archaeological Institute of America, all of whom frankly find inspiration in this wonderful old house.

After the burning of the White House by the British, President and Mrs. Madison established their official residence in the Octagon, and in a room on the second floor the Treaty of Ghent was signed.

In the reminiscences of the daughter of President Monroe, at whose house in New York City he died, it is stated that the Octagon was commonly deemed, in Washington, to be haunted; the haunting taking the form of the violent not-to-be-explained ringing of the service bells in the house. The daughter of Monroe could only set down the curious story with-out explanation. But recently I was told by an old Washington resident that the reason for it was long ago discovered, for the old-fashioned bellwires from all the rooms were found to run like fingers in one place behind the wall and here the rats had a runnel over them, hence the violent ringing at certain times. And the story arose and was for generations believed that the ghostly cause was cruel treatment of the slaves of the household in the long ago.