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|
Designed by William Thornton, the first architect of the United States Capitol, the Octagon was 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 planter 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.
John Tayloe III was born at Mount Airy in 1771, educated in England, served in the Virginia state legislature, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1800. John Tayloe III married Ann Ogle in 1792 at her family’s home Belair Mansion. Ann was only a year younger than her husband.
The Octagon was originally constructed to be a winter residence for the Tayloe family, but they lived in the house year-round from 1818-1855. The Octagon property originally included a number of outbuildings, including a smokehouse, laundry, stables, carriage house, slave quarters, and an ice house (the only surviving outbuilding) The Tayloes were involved in shipbuilding, horse breeding and racing, and owned several iron foundries—they were fairly diversified for a plantation family. The Tayloes owned hundreds of slaves, and had between 12 and 18 who worked at the Octagon.
The Tayloes had 15 children, 13 of whom survived to adulthood (2 died in infancy: Anne, born and died in 1800, and Lloyd, born 1815, died 1816). The children were all born between 1793 and 1815. The oldest son, John Tayloe IV, served in the US Navy during the War of 1812 aboard the USS Constitution. His early death in 1824 was possibly connected to wounds received during the war. His parents provided for his wife and child after his death.
The War of 1812
John Tayloe III was a Federalist, and not terribly supportive of President James Madison and the war with England that began in 1812, but he was active in the Virginia militia and commanded a regiment of DC cavalry. When the British marched into Washington in August 1814, there was a French flag flying outside the Octagon. Ann Ogle Tayloe had offered the house to the French consulate, in the hopes of sparing the house from destruction at the hands of the British, and he was occupying the house when the British arrived in the city. The house probably would have been spared even if it hadn’t been effectively a “diplomatic residence”, since the British were under strict orders not to damage private property. When First Lady Dolley Madison fled the city as the British approached, she sent her pet parrot to the French consulate at the Octagon for safekeeping.
President James Madison and his wife, Dolley moved into the Octagon on September 8, 1814 after the burning of the White House by the British. President Madison ratified the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, in the upstairs study at the Octagon on February 17, 1815. The Tayloes received $500 in rent for the Madisons’ 6-month residency at the Octagon.
John Tayloe III died in 1828 while staying at the Octagon. Ann Ogle Tayloe lived in the Octagon until her death in 1855. Both John and Ann were buried at their Mount Airy Plantation. After Ann’s death, the Tayloe children began renting out the house. It was rented to a girls’ school in the 1860s, and the Federal government in the 1870s, when it served as office space for the Hydrographic Office of the U.S. Navy. By the 1880s, the house was occupied by 10 families, probably one living in each room, tenement-apartment-style. The residents were probably mostly workers in the factories that populated Foggy Bottom. In 1898, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) selected the Octagon to be their new national headquarters. They rented the building for 4 years, and then purchased it outright in 1902. The Octagon would continue to serve as AIA’s headquarters until the construction of the current headquarters building in the 1960s.
The Octagon opened as a museum in 1970. The museum was restored to its 1817-18 era appearance in the early 1990s—the wall colors and room configurations that you see today are representative of that time period. The museum was administered by the American Architectural Foundation from 1970-2011/2012 (though the museum was closed from 2007 through 2013). Today, the museum is administered by the American Institute of Architects Foundation, and offers self-guided tours, permanent and changing exhibitions, public programming, and guided tours by appointment.
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 reason behind the naming of the six-sided building as the Octagon is unknown. Though the main room is a circle, one possibility is that it resembled octagonal rooms common in England, which were also circles but called octagon salons because they were constructed of eight walls and then plastered heavily in the corners to make a circle. Another explanation is that the eight angles formed by the odd shape of the six walls are an old definition of an octagon.
The Octagon House is purported to be one of the most haunted homes in D.C.
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, curators, and other employees hired by the museum .
There are many variations of ghost stories that feature the Octagon House in Washington D.C. As one of the oldest buildings in the city, it lends itself nicely as a setting for historical, spooky, and macabre tales. The stories recorded here are merely a presentation of a few of the reported experiences and legends that have evolved over the past 200 years, and should not be taken as historical fact.
The oldest of the Octagon’s ghost legends is that of the mysterious ringing of the servant’s call bells, just one of the legends linked to the 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 mid-1800s.
Virginia Tayloe Lewis, a granddaughter of John Tayloe III, grew up in the house, and recorded this family memorate in an unpublished manuscript: "The bells rang for a long time after my Grandfather Tayloe’s death, and every one said that the house was haunted; the wires were cut and still they rang… Our dining room servant would come upstairs to ask if anyone rang the bell, and no one had." 
An account by Marian Gouverneur, wife of Samuel Laurence Gouverneur, Jr. (the first American consul in Foo Chow, China), tells the story of General George D. Ramsay, Chief of Ordnance for the United States Army and commander of the Washington Arsenal in Washington, D.C., and his experience with the bells: “I have been told by the daughters of General George D. Ramsay that upon one occasion their father was requested by Colonel John Tayloe… to remain at the Octagon overnight, when we was obliged to be absent, as a protection to his daughters… While the members of the family were at the evening meal, the bells in the house began to ring violently. General Ramsay immediately arose from the table to investigate, but failed to unravel the mystery. The butler, in a state of great alarm, rushed into the dining-room and declared that it was the work of an unseen hand. As they continued to ring, General Ramsay held the rope which controlled the bells, but, it is said, they were not silenced.” 
By 1874 the bell legend was well established. Mary Clemmer Ames wrote about it: "It is an authenticated fact, that every night at the same hour, all the bells would ring at once. One gentleman, dining with Colonel Tayloe, when this mysterious ringing began, being an unbeliever in mysteries, and a very powerful man, jumped up and caught the bell wires in his hand, but only to be lifted bodily from the floor, while he was unsuccessful in stopping the ringing. Some declare that it was discovered, after a time, that rats were the ghosts who rung the bells; others, that the cause was never discovered, and that finally the family, to secure peace, were compelled to take the bells down and hang them in different fashion. Among other remedies, had been previously tried that of exorcism, but the prayers of the priest who had been summoned availed nought." 
The servant’s bells are no longer in the house, and there are no reports of their continuing to ring today.
There are a number of ghostly legends at the Octagon that deal with its early history as a gathering place for the elite of Washington. Dolley Madison is prominent in these legends because she was well known as a hostess during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. She is a very popular ghost in Washington D.C., and is said to haunt several buildings around town. Dolley and James Madison resided in the Octagon House from September 1814 through March of 1815, after the White House was burned by the British.
According to the legends, ghostly receptions are held by Dolley Madison, who is supposedly most often seen in the front hall and drawing room, and the smell of lilacs is noticeable whenever her ghost is present.
Colonel Tayloe’s daughters
By far the most intricate and popular of the legends connected with the Octagon is that of the deaths of the Tayloes’ daughters. Variations of the legend are so well developed and circulated, that visitors to the house are often thoroughly convinced that they are based on fact. In reality, there is no documentation to support any of them.
The legend, which made its first appearance in a 1908 article run by the Minneapolis Tribune, has appeared on TV shows, and in numerous ghost books, and usually follows a storyline similar to this:
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 quarreled 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 specter 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.
There is no historical evidence to support these stories. Nothing about the ghosts of the daughters appears before 1908, and none of the Tayloes’ daughters died in the Octagon. Of the Tayloes’ seven daughters, only three died before the age of 30. Of those, one died in 1800 at the age of one month (Ann Tayloe), and never lived in the Octagon. Rebecca Plater Tayloe, died in 1815 at the age of 18, but at that time the Octagon was being rented by President Madison, and the Tayloe family was staying at their Mount Airy Plantation, in Richmond County, VA. Sources state that the Tayloe family was "grief stricken by the loss through illness of their eighteen year old daughter Rebecca Plater while at Mount Airy". The next youngest of their surviving daughters to die was Elizabeth Mary Tayloe, who died in 1832 at the age of 26. She died in Washington D.C., but not at the Octagon House. At the time of her death her father, John Tayloe III, had already been dead for four years, and she had already been married to her husband, Robert Wormeley Carter II, for some time. The 4 remaining daughters all died over the age of 38. For a complete list of the births and deaths of the Tayloe children, see the John Tayloe III page.
Other reports of ghostly activity
The Octagon was firmly established as a haunted house by 1888, when, it is reported, twelve men decided to spend a night in the house in order to expel the ghosts or prove the legends wrong. A first-hand account was printed in a local newspaper, and this was subsequently quoted or paraphrased in articles printed in 1892, 1934, 1941, 1950, and 1969. “The hours wore quietly on. The party were dispersed from garret to cellar. At the hour of midnight, as I and two others were crossing the threshold of a room on the second floor, three feminine shrieks rose from the center of the room. Aghast we stood. From all quarters the party rushed… Too brave to desert, yet cowards at heart, we watched the gray light of morning dawn, and each man of us thanked God his night among ghosts was past. After those screams our band was closely knit together… collectively we listened through the waning hours of night to the clanking of sabers and tramping of footfalls.”
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.
In the late 1940s, a doctor who had made a house call to the Octagon had a strange encounter on the stairway. Caretaker James Cyprus had summoned the physician for his ailing wife. The doctor was preparing to leave when he mustered up enough courage to ask Cyprus if there was a costume party going on that evening. When Cyprus told him that there wasn’t, the doctor looked perplexed and told him of encountering a man on the stairs just a few moments before who had been dressed in a military uniform of the early 1800s.
A gambler shot to death in the home's third-floor bedroom in the late 19th century has been reportedly seen in the room in which he died. A 1912 newspaper article related the story of a man who had stayed for a month in a room in the Octagon which he claimed was visited nightly by the spirit of a man who was killed over a card game held in the room.
There are numerous reports of occurrences in the Octagon that were supposedly caused by the household ghosts. The sound of rustling silk is said to be heard on the main staircase, the hanging lamp in the main hallway allegedly swings by itself, there is a spot at the foot of the main staircase that some people feel they are forced to avoid, and one curator is reported to have found the “tiptoeing tracks of human feet in the undisturbed dust of the top floor landing”.
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|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