The Octagon House

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For other buildings called Octagon House, see Octagon House (disambiguation).
The Octagon House
The Octagon House in Washington, DC
The Octagon House is located in Washington, D.C.
The Octagon House
Location 1799 New York Avenue, Northwest, Washington, D.C.
Coordinates 38°53′46.68″N 77°2′29.40″W / 38.8963000°N 77.0415000°W / 38.8963000; -77.0415000Coordinates: 38°53′46.68″N 77°2′29.40″W / 38.8963000°N 77.0415000°W / 38.8963000; -77.0415000
Built 1799
Architect William Thornton
Architectural style Federal
Governing body Private
NRHP Reference # 66000863[1]
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966[1]
Designated NHL December 19, 1960[2]

The Octagon House, also known as the Colonel John Tayloe III House, is located at 1799 New York Avenue, Northwest in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C.


It was designed by William Thornton, the first architect of the United States Capitol, and built between 1799 and 1801 in Washington, D.C. Colonel John Tayloe III, for whom the house was built at the cost of $26,000-twice the estimates, owned Mount Airy Plantation, located approximately one hundred miles south of Washington, D.C., in Richmond County, Virginia. Tayloe was reputed to be the richest Virginian plantation owner of his time, and built the house in Washington at the suggestion of George Washington on land purchased from Benjamin Stoddert, first Secretary of the Navy. When British troops were advancing on Washington, D.C., the Tayloes approached the French ambassador and offered use of their home as the French embassy. The offer was accepted, the French ambassador declared the home an embassy and The Octagon House survived the War of 1812 intact.[3] In 1814, Colonel Tayloe offered the use of his home to President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, for a temporary "Executive Mansion" after the burning of the White House by the British. On February 17, 1815, Madison, who used the circular main parlor room above the entrance as a study, signed the ratification papers for the Treaty of Ghent there, which ended the War of 1812. The Tayloes sold the house in 1855. It was used as a hospital during the Civil War[citation needed], and as an apartment building in the post-war period.

The three-story brick house, adapted to an irregular-shaped lot, displays a dramatic break with the traditional, late Georgian and early Federal house planning that preceded it. The Octagon achieves a zenith in Federal architecture in the United States, through a plan which combines a circle, two rectangles, and a triangle, and through the elegance and restraint of the interior and exterior decoration. The Coade stone, stoves, other decorative elements, and furniture were imported from England. The construction materials, such as bricks, timber, iron, and Aquia Creek sandstone were all manufactured locally.

The Octagon House became the home of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) on January 1, 1899, and complete ownership of the property was acquired in 1902. In 1965, the AIA sold the Octagon to its nonprofit arm, then known as the American Architectural Foundation, which started a museum in the building. Today, AIA Legacy, the non-profit arm of the AIA, owns The Octagon House, having taken over stewardship of the museum from the American Architectural Foundation in 2007. The AIA moved its headquarters to a larger building, opened in 1973, located directly behind it. The house has undergone extensive renovation since 1990, culminating in efforts to restore the original period appearance. The French Heritage Society is among those who have contributed to the restoration of the house.[4]

It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960.[2][5]

Alleged haunting[edit]

The Octagon is supposedly one of the most haunted buildings in D.C.

The Octagon House is purported to be the most haunted home in D.C.[6] It was built in 1801 by Colonel John Tayloe III.[7] The Tayloes were a greatly distinguished Virginia family: His grandfather, Colonel John Tayloe I (d. 1745), was a member of the King's Council in Virginia and owner of more than 3,000 acres (12 km2) of land (a huge estate at the time), and his father, Colonel John Tayloe II, built the historic Mount Airy manor house in 1758 and was also a member of the King's Council.[8] John Tayloe III was a close friend of George Washington's, and Washington convinced Tayloe to build a winter home in the new city of Washington.[7] There is some evidence that walled back yard of The Octagon itself may have served as a slave market,[9] and it is well-established that the rear of the building housed the Tayloe family's slaves.[10] The Tayloe family was exceptionally well-connected, and their home was an important one in the city. After the burning of the White House in the War of 1812, President James and Dolley Madison lived there from September 1814 to October 1815, and Madison signed Treaty of Ghent (which ended the war) there in February 1815.[11]

Formal oval curved stairway

Apparitions and the presence of otherworldly forces have reportedly been seen and felt in many places at The Octagon, including on the spiral staircase, the second floor landing, the third floor landing, the third floor bedroom, and the garden area in the rear.[12] Among the eyewitnesses have been members of the public, and curators and other employees hired by the museum which owns the house.[13] Two of Colonel Tayloe's daughters are said to haunt The Octagon.[14] The first allegedly died before the War of 1812. Colonel Tayloe and his daughter quarrelled on the second floor landing over the girl's relationship with a British officer stationed in the city. When the daughter turned in anger to go down the stairs, she fell down the stairs (or over the railing; stories differ) and died. Her spectre is allegedly 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.[12] The other death, stories claim, occurred in 1817 or shortly thereafter. Another of Colonel Tayloe's daughters eloped with a young man, 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 down the stairs (or over the railing), and her shade is alleged to haunt the third floor landing and stairs between the second and third floors.[15]

Angled service stairway

The Octagon is also believed by some to be haunted by the spirits of African American slaves who once lived there.[16] When the house held bells to summon servants, the spirits of the dead slaves would announce their presence by ringing these bells loudly.[17] The ghostly bell ringing is believed to have first occurred in the 1870s. General George D. Ramsay, Chief of Ordnance for the United States Army and commander of the Washington Arsenal in Washington, D.C., was attending a dinner at The Octagon when all the bells in the house began ringing. As Marian Gouverneur, wife of Samuel Laurence Gouverneur, Jr. (the first American consul in Foo Chow, China), related the story, General Ramsay seized the bell ropes to stop the bells from sounding, but to everyone's shock they did not stop ringing.[18] Although Gouverneur's report was not made until 1911, the mysterious ringing of the bells had been reported in 1874[19] and again in 1889,[17] each time attributed to the spirits of dead slaves.

Other spirits are also said to remain at The Octagon. Dolley Madison's spirit has been seen[by whom?] near the fireplace in the main ballroom as well as heading through a closed door to the garden, and her ghost's presence[dubious ] is accompanied by the smell of lilacs (her favorite flower).[20] A slave girl in the house was allegedly thrown from the third floor landing to the first floor below and killed by a British soldier during the War of 1812, and eyewitnesses have reported hearing her scream.[21] The spectre of a British soldier in War of 1812 dress was seen by caretaker James Cypress in the 1950s, and museum superintendent Alric H. Clay claimed that in the 1960s spirits would often turn on the lights and open The Octagon's doors late at night.[21] 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 he died in,[22] and ghostly footmen have been seen at the front door waiting to receive guests.[13] Various witnesses have also reported hearing assorted moans, screams, and footsteps.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 
  2. ^ a b "List of National Historic Landmarks by state". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. November 2007. Retrieved 2009-09-04. 
  3. ^ Benjamin Ogle Tayloe. "In memoriam: Benjamin Ogle Tayloe". Sherman and Company. 
  4. ^ French Heritage Society; Washington Chapter
  5. ^ W. Brown Morton III (February 8, 1971). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: The Octagon / Colonel John Tayloe House" (pdf). National Park Service.  and Accompanying three photos, exterior and interior, from 1971 and undated PDF (32 KB)
  6. ^ Solomon, Mary Jane; Ruben, Barbard; and Aloisi, Rebecca. Insiders' Guide to Washington, D.C. 7th ed. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot, 2007. ISBN 0-7627-4410-3; Roos, Frank John. Writings on Early American Architecture: An Annotated List of Books and Articles on Architecture Constructed Before 1860 in the Eastern Half of the United States. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 1943; "Hauntings in the Heart of Washington." Washington Post. October 24, 2008.
  7. ^ a b McCue, George. The Octagon: Being an Account of a Famous Washington Residence, Its Great Years, Decline & Restoration. Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Foundation, 1976.
  8. ^ "Old Letters From Virginia County Records." William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine. 11:3 (January 1903); Sale, Edith Tunis. Manors of Virginia in Colonial Times. New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1909; Watson, Winslow Marston. In Memoriam: Benjamin Ogle Tayloe. Philadelphia, Pa.: Sherman & Co., 1872. For information on the King's Council of Virginia, its constitution, its emigration to America, and its function in Virginia, see: Warner, Charles Dudley. "Truth About Virginia." New York Times. July 9, 1898.
  9. ^ The District of Columbia was "home to the largest slave market in North America", and the city contained four or five very large slave markets as well as numerous smaller "slave pens" in nearly every neighborhood and rural area of the District. See: Bangura, Abdul Karim. Historical Political Economy of Washington. Latham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000. ISBN 0-7618-1707-7; Gutheim, Frederick Albert. Worthy of the Nation: Washington, DC, From L'Enfant to the National Capital Planning Commission. 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-8018-8328-8; Christianson, Scott. With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America. Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2000. ISBN 1-55553-468-6; Goode, James W. Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington's Destroyed Buildings. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003. ISBN 1-58834-105-4. For quote, see: De Angelis, Gina. It Happened in Washington. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot, 2004, ISBN 0-7627-2590-7 p. 49.
  10. ^ Gutheim, Frederick Albert. Worthy of the Nation: Washington, DC, From L'Enfant to the National Capital Planning Commission. 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-8018-8328-8
  11. ^ Haas, Irvin. Historic Homes of the American Presidents. 2d ed. North Chelmsford, Mass.:Courier Dover Publications, 1991. ISBN 0-486-26751-2; Moore, Virginia. The Madisons: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979. ISBN 0-07-042903-0
  12. ^ a b c Floyd, Randall. In the Realm of Ghosts and Hauntings. Augusta, Ga.: Harbor House, 2002. ISBN 1-891799-06-1
  13. ^ a b Hauck, Dennis. Haunted Places: The National Directory. 2d ed. New York: Penguin Group, 2002. ISBN 0-14-200234-8
  14. ^ Whitman, William B. Washington, D.C. Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to Unique Places. 4th ed. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot, 2007. ISBN 0-7627-4217-8
  15. ^ Apkarian-Russell, Pamela. Washington's Haunted Past: Capital Ghosts of America. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2006. ISBN 1-59629-181-8
  16. ^ "Old Landmarks at the Capital That Few Persons Know Anything About." New York Times. January 4, 1891.
  17. ^ a b Lockwood, Mary Smith. Historic Homes in Washington: Its Noted Men and Women. New York: Belford Company, 1889.
  18. ^ Gouverneur, Marian. As I Remember: Recollections of American Society During the Nineteenth Century. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1911.
  19. ^ Clemmer, Mary. Ten Years in Washington: Life and Scenes in the National Capital as a Woman Sees Them. Cincinnati: Queen City Publishing Company, 1874.
  20. ^ Let's Go Washington. New York: Macmillan, 2003. ISBN 0-312-32001-9
  21. ^ a b Evelyn, Douglas E.; Dickson, Paul; and Ackerman, S.J. On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C. 3rd rev. ed. Dulles, Va.: Capital Books, 2008. ISBN 1-933102-70-5
  22. ^ Ogden, Tom. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ghosts and Hauntings. New York: Alpha Books, 1999. ISBN 0-02-863659-7

Further reading[edit]

  • Tayloe, Benjamin Ogle (1982). "Our Neighbors on Lafayette Square: Anecdotes and Reminiscences: Selections from Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, In Memoriam, 1872". Washington, D.C.: Junior League of Washington. 

External links[edit]