Washington, D.C. Travel Guide

Washington, D.C. Sights

The Octagon House

  • 1799 New York Ave. NW Map It
  • White House area
  • House/Mansion/Villa

Published 07/20/2015

Fodor's Review

Why this six-sided building is named the Octagon remains a subject of debate. Some say that even though the main room is a circle, it resembled octagonal rooms common in England (these rooms were actually circular as well, but called octagon salons because they were constructed of eight walls and then plastered heavily in the corners to make a circle). Others say it's for the eight angles formed by the odd shape of the six walls—an old definition of an octagon. Either way, the building is considered one of the best examples of Federal architecture in the United States, and offers visitors an opportunity to learn about life in the city at the birth of the new nation's capital. Designed by Dr. William Thornton (original architect of the U.S. Capitol), the Octagon was built for John Tayloe III, a wealthy Virginia plantation owner, and was completed in 1801. Thornton chose the unusual shape to conform to the acute angle formed by L'Enfant's intersection of New York Avenue and 18th Street.

Interior details show how architecture was used to display wealth and also accommodate both the homeowners and their servants and slaves.

After the British burned the White House in 1814, Thornton convinced the Tayloes to allow James and Dolley Madison to stay in the Octagon. From September 1814 until March 1815, the Octagon became the temporary White House. It was in the second-floor study that the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, was ratified. The Tayloes resided in the house until 1855, and after that the building went through a number of uses: a girls' school, U.S. Navy offices, and by the 1880s, tenement apartments for workers in nearby factories. In 1898, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) selected the dilapidated buildings as their new national headquarters. The Octagon served as AIA's headquarters for more than 70 years, until the construction of the organization's new modern headquarters directly behind the Octagon.

Renovations have revealed such details as the intricate plaster molding and the original Coade stone fireplace surrounds (named for the women who crafted a now-lost method of casting crushed stone) and returned the Octagon to its 1815 appearance, topped off by a historically accurate, cedar-shingle roof with balustrade. Historicallyfurnished rooms include the parlor, dining room, treaty room, and basement kitchen. Second-floor gallery spaces hold temporary exhibits on history, architecture and design.

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Sight Information


1799 New York Ave. NW, Washington, District of Columbia, 20006, USA

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Sight Details:

  • Free; $10 for guided tours (by appointment; 24-hrs notice required)

Published 07/20/2015


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