The Octagon House
The Octagon House
|Location||1799 New York Avenue, Northwest, Washington, D.C.|
|NRHP Reference #||66000863|
|Added to NRHP||October 15, 1966|
|Designated NHL||December 19, 1960|
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, 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. 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. Madison, who used the circular 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, 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. 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 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.
The Octagon House is purported to be the most haunted home in D.C. It was built in 1801 by Colonel John Tayloe III. 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. 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. There is some evidence that walled back yard of The Octagon itself may have served as a slave market, and it is well-established that the rear of the building housed the Tayloe family's slaves. 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. 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. Among the eyewitnesses have been members of the public, and curators and other employees hired by the museum which owns the house. Two of Colonel Tayloe's daughters are said to haunt The Octagon. 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. 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.
The Octagon is also believed by some to be haunted by the spirits of African American slaves who once lived there. When the house held bells to summon servants, the spirits of the dead slaves would announce their presence by ringing these bells loudly. 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. Although Gouverneur's report was not made until 1911, the mysterious ringing of the bells had been reported in 1874 and again in 1889, 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 near the fireplace in the main ballroom as well as heading through a closed door to the garden, and her ghost's presence is accompanied by the smell of lilacs (her favorite flower). 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. 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. 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, 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.
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- "Old Landmarks at the Capital That Few Persons Know Anything About." New York Times. January 4, 1891.
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- Ogden, Tom. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Ghosts and Hauntings. New York: Alpha Books, 1999. ISBN 0-02-863659-7
- 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.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Octagon House (Washington, D.C.).|
- Octagon House - American Institute of Architects
- National Park Service - Octagon House
- Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) No. DC-25, "Octagon House, 1799 (1741) New York Avenue, Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC", 175 photos, 12 measured drawings, 2 data pages, 12 photo caption pages
- HABS No. DC-808, "Octagon House, Ice House"
- HABS No. DC-336, "Octagon House, Stable", 2 photos, 4 data pages