Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Elegant Republic

This is Mt. Airy Plantation, a Palladian outpost in rustic America built in 1764 near the northern Virginia village of Warsaw. Although closely related, it is not the subject of today's post. By 1799, Mt. Airy was owned by John Tayloe III (1771-1828), probably the richest planter in slave-owning America. Tayloe's confrere, General Washington, convinced him that year to build a city house - "city" being a euphemism for the swampy and largely barren District of Columbia - within shouting distance of the new Presidential Palace, a.k.a., the White House.

Tayloe was European educated, served in the Virginia legislature, owned thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves, and derived his prosperity from the land. He was, in short, an exemplar of Thomas Jefferson's vision of the new American elite. Unprepossesing as Washington city then looked, Tayloe's lot cost a not-cheap $1000.

Here is Dr. William Thornton (1759-1828), the talented amateur who, in 1793, designed the U.S. Capitol (for $500 and a free lot) and, in 1798, did Tayloe's new city house at 1799 New York Avenue N.W. My sister used to say, if anyone asked, that the 18th Century was the perfect century. This was an admittedly aesthetic judgement but, seeing as income inequality, human rights abuses and medical crises haven't changed much, she may have had a point. Where architecture was concerned, the 18th century's "gestalt," even in our remote little republic, was a comely mix of rediscovered classical antiquity and a conscious allegiance to the rule of reason. The result was a delicate, if slightly thin, fineness, a weensy bit refined for my own corrupted taste, but highly elegant still and all.

And this is the Octagon, Thornton's house for the Tayloes, seen below in 1870, when still intact but past its peak. Dr. Thornton, interestingly, ended life as head of the U.S. Patent Office, a left turn from what I'd have thought a promising career in architecture. After the widow Tayloe's death in 1855, her children, disinclined to live in a declining neighborhood, rented the house to a Catholic academy for young ladies, then in 1867 to the Hydrographic Department of the U.S. Navy, which remained there until 1879.

Here's the Octagon today, located two blocks from the White House at one of those crazy D.C. intersections where, in this case, an outrigger block of New York Avenue kisses one of two E Streets (don't ask) at the corner of 18th Street N.W. The house is in "XXX Mint" condition, as real estate brokers say, the result of a scholarly restoration completed in 1995, and paid for by the American Institute of Architects, tenants since 1898 and owners since 1902. It's missing its shutters, a frequent omission on even the best restorations, and a situation I'd correct right away.

The house sits at the nose end of a now shrunken triangular parcel that once included stables, a carriage house, slave quarters, a separate laundry building, smokehouse and a still surviving ice house. Those vanished vestiges of early life in the capital have been replaced by the AIA's new (well, in 1973) headquarters, which in turn replaced it's longtime residence in the Octagon itself. The new building is a swooping, low rise, glass and stone affair, profoundly inoffensive in the mode of official Washington. You may wonder, as I did, how in the world the Tayloe house came to be dubbed "The Octagon?" Polygonal, yes. Octagonal? I don't think so. There is, however, an explanation - well, two explanations, as my very kind hostess, Octagon Museum Manager Teresa Martinez, soon explained.

Dr. Thornton's was an original solution to a challenging site, one that employed classical geometry - triangles, rectangles and a circle - to produce an elegant and liveable plan. According to one account, the circular rooms so beloved of 18th century builders had to be framed out first as octagons, then smoothed into circles by means of interior plasterwork. This may be true, but as an explanation for calling a house an Octagon, I don't really buy it. Alternately, if you count the individual planes on the exterior facade of this house - counting the bow front as one - you'll come up with eight. To me this makes more sense.

Another head scratcher is how exactly the Tayloes managed to live in this house with 13 (out of an original 15) children, and as many as 18 slaves. Answer: The children were never all here at once, being either at school in England or down at Mt. Airy, and such slaves not condemned to sleeping on the basement floor shared quarters out back. Today's interiors have been restored to the period shortly after the War of 1812, about which more later. Of note in the entrance hall are beautiful proportions, restrained details, curved doors, marble flooring, and a pair of stoves that haven't been moved in 213 years.

The main stair, lit by a Palladian window at mezzanine level, is almost Shaker in its simplicity.

In 1814, as British forces advanced on the capital, there was a general rout of the better classes. Many fled with furniture, silver and slaves to family plantations further south. The departing Tayloes, on the way out the door, lent their Washington townhouse to the French consul, in hopes the Tricolor out front would stave off marauders with firebrands. It did, although in the name of accuracy, those marauders had been strictly instructed by their commanders to respect private property. Dolley Madison, fleeing the soon-to-be burned White House, tarried long enough to deposit her parrot with the French consul for safekeeping, before hurrying off to Georgetown en route south. As soon as the smoke cleared, President and Mrs. Madison returned to Washington and moved into the Octagon. The Tayloes' beautiful drawing room and dining room became the scenes of state receptions and dinners, as well as Dolley Madison's famous Wednesday night "squeezes," so named for the crush of socially aspiring attendees. The Madisons stayed in the house for six months and paid the Tayloes a total of $500 in rent.

The drawing room is a restrained and well proportioned space, none of whose furnishings is original. Its principle feature is an imported Coadestone fireplace, quite a luxury for 1799. This twice fired composite stone, the favorite of English kings and noblemen, was the product of a famously profitable firm owned by an Englishwoman named Eleanor Coade (1733-1821).

Across the hall is the dining room, with yet more Coadestone. The stuff was easily cast into all manner of decorate devices - balustrades, snarling lions, fireplace surrounds, cornice detail, etc., etc. - and famously resistant to weather. Table servants during the Octagon's salad days, immediately before and after the War of 1812, wore blue livery with red vests, gold lace on the pockets, epaulettes on the shoulders, white stockings and buckled shoes.

No dumb waiter or serving pantry in this old house, but rather a steep stair to a primitive (by modern standards) basement kitchen whose sole comfort was a fair amount of light.

This kitchen was better than most, given the Tayloes' money, but cooking in it couldn't have been easy. Coals from the fire were put in the square grates below, then pots set on top to simmer.

Elsewhere in today's eerily antiseptic basement are a wine cellar, housekeeper's room, servant hall and lots of brick flooring that couldn't have been very comfortable to sleep on.

The graceful main stair makes the house appear to have four floors when it really has three. (Explanation to come).

OK, let's see who's smarter than a Fifth Grader. "Question: The Treaty of Ghent; Discuss." The dates in today's post may already have given the answer away. The Treaty of Ghent, negotiated in neutral Belgium after we and the Brits had endured sufficient mutual and inconclusive destruction, ended the War of 1812. President Madison signed it on February 17, 1815 in Mr. Tayloe's second floor study, six months after the sack of Washington. The portrait over the study fireplace is Mr. Tayloe's son, Midshipman John Tayloe IV, wounded in August, 1812 during a dreadfully bloody confrontation between the U.S.S. Constitution (a.k.a. Old Ironsides) and the British frigate Guerriere. (We won).

Let's leave the study and have a look at the late 18th century's version of an owners' suite (the door is on the left in the 2nd image below). There are actually two dressing rooms in this suite, one on either side of the bedroom - and one of which I have accidentally neglected to label. Of course, there was no bathroom.

By the 1880s Foggy Bottom had deteriorated into an industrial slum, speckled with a few decrepit mansions that had been converted to tenement rooming houses. When an AIA architect named Glenn Brown stumbled onto the Octagon in 1898, he found it bulging with ten families and no indoor plumbing. The Coadestone fireplace in the vintage image below, said to have been taken that same year, is in the owners' bedroom. What strikes me as odd in this picture is the proliferation of books in a scene that would otherwise seem a depiction of extreme poverty.

The view below looks from Mr. Tayloe's dressing room across a small anteroom to the second floor landing. On the opposite side were two bedrooms, now combined into a single exhibition space. A ceiling soffit marks the line of the former dividing wall.

The Octagon is full of low key details - among them an abundance of curved doors - that often go unnoticed in an 18th century house. The service stair lurks behind this one. We, however, are taking the main stair to 3, where restored bedrooms are used today as museum offices.

The three steps in the image below lead to the "faux" 4th floor, which is really just a couple of closets. Seen from below, however, the little mezzanine onto which they open makes the house appear grander by an entire floor.

No matter how often the "ghost stories" are debunked, the Octagon is still considered the most haunted house in Washington. This is unsurprising, I suppose, given the "fact-free" environment that characterizes so much of American life.

The American Institute of Architects, originally called the New York Society of Architects, was founded in 1857, only two years after Mrs. Tayloe's death. In those days, anyone with a mind to do so could simply call himself an "architect." Forget about training or licensing. The Institute sought to "promote the scientific and practical perfection of its members" and "elevate the standing of the profession." Heavyweights like Richard Morris Hunt, Richard Upjohn, Alexander Jackson Davis, Calvert Vaux, and Leopold Eidlitz were among the founders and first invited members. The Octagon has been a house museum since 1970, and if you have a taste for early Federal elegance, it is definitely worth a visit. The link is


  1. Fascinating. A beautiful house. It's interesting to see the original heating stoves in situ; those have almost always vanished, sold to the scrap man no doubt.

    Glenn Brown was, I believe, an early historic preservationist. He had a hand in McKim, Mead & White's renovation of the White House for Theodore Roosevelt.

    I wonder if the books in that vintage view belonged to a struggling student? Or perhaps a down-on-their-luck tutor who made a few pennies teaching slum children?

    The haunted house stories I've read about the Octagon all seem to be tied to Dolly Madison's parties or at least the romantic memories of them.

  2. In "fact-free" America, often houses of this period and the Colonial/Federal period in general have become forgotten relics, uninteresting with today's easily bored youth. The sale by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation of famed Carter's Grove Plantation due to low attendance and the closure of many other period house museums across the country only makes preserving striking architectural examples like the Octagon more and more difficult. Great post

    1. Here's an interesting article from last year on this very subject:

      There are, perhaps, too many historic house museums across the country. While each has its charms, the question is "Does this house tell a compelling enough story?"

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. very nice! i haven't been there since the restoration; will have to go back some time.

  4. Those file organizers hanging on the doors by a black string...c'mon. I suppose they hold a description of the room but aren't they a bit cringeworthy.

    1. I noticed that too. Doesn't really work, does it?

    2. How about this word...''.tacky''.

  5. What a coincidence I've been watching a program on the DIY channel about the descendants of Mr Tayloe rehabbing Mt Airy. Cool to think it has stayed in their family all this time.

  6. Speaking of Mt. Airy - any chance of seeing inside? And how about Belair? I know they're both somewhat far afield but...
    BTW, were 18th century/early 19th houses really that devoid of knick knacks and bric-a-brac?

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