The Octagon Museum, located two blocks from the White House, is a stately, private and historic home built in the founding days of Washington, DC. Completed in 1801, the house was designed by Dr. William Thornton, First Architect of the U.S. Capitol, for Colonel John Tayloe III, a wealthy Virginia plantation owner, and his family as their winter home.
Tayloe had been considering several cities in which to build his seasonal quarters, and settled on Washington, DC at the encouragement of George Washington as a gesture to symbolize the permanence of the new federal city. Washington himself had also purchased two residential lots near the U.S. Capitol, but died before he could occupy them.
The unusual, geometric design of the Octagon House, which actually has six sides, made use of the awkward corner lot on which it was built. The brick face of the front facade is broken by a circular central column that rises three levels above ground. Inside, a climb up the oval staircase offers views down to the entryway below.
The Tayloe family remained a fixture in the early days of Washington, DC, extended through their son Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, who built a home nearby on Lafayette Square. Benjamin wrote a memoir detailing the early days of Washington, DC.
The house rose to historic significance after the British burned the White House in the War of 1812. One of the finest houses in the federal city, Tayloe rented the Octagon to the homeless President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison for six months from September 1814 until March 1815 while the White House underwent reconstruction. Knowing how fragile the state of the union was at the time, the Madisons tried to resume the normal business of government as best as possible, with Dolley continuing to host her social gatherings, or “squeezes,” in the front parlor of the Octagon.
It was here that Secretary of State and War James Monroe, who became the next President, delivered a proposed peace treaty from the British to Madison at the Octagon House. After the Senate unanimously ratified it, Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent three days later on February 17, 1815 in his study at the Octagon House ending the War of 1812. The circular desk on which he signed the treaty and the box in which Monroe delivered it are on display in the Treaty Room at the Octagon.
Today, the house is owned by the American Institute of Architects Foundation, which restored it and maintains it as a museum.
The Octagon House is open for free self-guided tours, fee-based private tours, exhibitions and events. Check the website for the limited hours and details.