000A. THE PRIVATE MUSEUMS - The The Octagon Museum 3.15.14 JPG



Once Washington, in the District of Columbia, was chosen as the permanent capital of the United States, its first president, George Washington, called on his friends to build their homes nearby.  Among them was Colonel John Tayloe III, the wealthy owner of the Mount Airy plantation in Warsaw, Virginia, who built a winter home for himself, his wife Ann, and his large family a block and a half from the President’s White House.


Dr. William Thornton, the first architect of the U.S. Capitol, designed the Tayloes’ mansion in 1799 on a wedge-shaped lot as an “urban plantation” with Greek-revival interiors.  Thornton, an abolitionist, who was born into a monied British family on the British Virgin Island of Tortola, nevertheless created accommodation for the Tayloes’ servants and slaves.


The main floor of the three-storey building was geared to the Tayloes’ lavish and frequent entertainments.  The circular entrance hall, painted pink for brightness using very expensive pigments, had “hidden” closets for the guests and two staircases, one for the family, the other for servants.  Guests mingled in the drawing room off the entrance hall before crossing the foyer to the dining room for a sumptuous dinner.  Both rooms have large Coade stone fireplaces for warmth and two entrances, one from the butler’s pantry, another from the service stairs to the kitchen.


The second floor was occupied by the Tayloes’ master bedroom, their dressing rooms, the Colonel’s study, a nursery, and a guest room.  Following the burning of the White House by the British in 1814, President James Madison and his wife Dolley, a great friend of a friend of Mrs. Tayloe, took refuge in the house for six months.  It was in Tayloe’s study that President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812. 


The older children and their tutor took over the third floor.  The basement housed a cistern, an enormous kitchen, a large wine storage area and living quarters for the servants and slaves.  Of the several outbuildings that included two barns only an ice house remains. 


The Octagon Museum has been national headquarters for the American Institute of Architects since 1899, a group that has renovated this historic house to perfection.  Many pieces of furniture and artifacts are authentic, or of the period.  Not only is the Octagon Museum visually exciting, it is steeped in an accessible history of the not so distant past.


1799 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20006


Hours: Thursdays and Fridays: Self-guided Tours: 1:00 – 4:00 PM

Admission: Free

For a private or group tours call: 202-626-7439 or e-mail: octagonmuseum@aia.org





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