AAF’s ambitious restorations to The Octagon supported by a Save America’s Treasures grant
The American Architectural Foundation
Year of Award: 2005
National Park Service SAT Grant: $225,000
Matching Share Leveraged: $293,680
The Octagon, designed in 1799 by Dr. William Thornton first architect of the United States Capitol for wealthy Virginian Colonel John Tayloe III and his wife Ann Ogle Tayloe, is a historic residence with an enduring legacy. Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960, the building is nationally recognized as one of America’s earliest and finest examples of Federal Period architecture demonstrating outstanding originality of design, extraordinary craftsmanship, and remarkable attention to detail.
The Octagon has had four owners: the Tayloe family from 1799-1902; the American Institute of Architects (AIA) from 1902-1968; the American Architectural Foundation (AAF) from 1968-2009; and, AIA Legacy, Inc. 2009-present. During these periods, 5 major restorations occurred. The most recent restoration was made possible in 2005, when a Save America’s Treasures grant was awarded to assist with Phases 4-6 of the American Architectural Foundation’s ambitious restoration program begun in the 1980’s.
This grant and matching funds provided a new red cedar shingle roof with additional lathe; conservation and restoration of the 11 exterior fragile, built-in, metal balconettes; repair and stabilization of stone and brick masonry elements; conservation and repair of all exterior wood fabric (window sash, frames, doors, and cornice); an additional archaeological study of the lower rear entrance and underground coal storage vault areas; conservation of the entry portico (including Coadstone capitals and bases) and its roof; and, exterior waterproofing of the underground barrel-vaulted coal storage tunnel.
Educated in London, Colonel Tayloe appreciated Neoclassicism and the architecture of Robert Adam and sought to express the beauty, symmetry, attention to detail, and decorative ornament of this style in his in the nation’s new capital city. Tayloe had purchased the odd-shaped triangular lot at the corner of what is now 18th Street and New York Avenue, NW at the urging of President George Washington, who envisioned the future capital of the nation as an economic, cultural, and governmental center. He needed educated, wealthy men like Tayloe to invest in the city and help formalize Pierre L’Enfant’s street plan. For Tayloe, a young entrepreneur with political aspirations, being close to the center of government was powerful incentive to invest in this still undeveloped location.
Tayloe first hired Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design this city residence as a winter home for the family, whose main residence was Mt. Airy, a 1740’s residence and plantation that lies 75 miles south of Washington on the Potomac River. Tayloe found Latrobe’s plan too ostentatious and expensive and then hired Dr. Thornton to design and oversee construction. Originally budgeted at $13,000, the building cost Tayloe $33,000 in the end.
From basement to attic, every detail was addressed. Examples include the impressive entry hall twin coal stoves, imported from Scotland; drawing room and dining room mantels and fireplace surrounds, imported from the Coadestone Factory outside London; beautifully appointed plaster and applied decoration throughout the entire building; and, a specially engineered guttering system that collected water from the roof, transported it through a highly sophisticated drain system to an interior cistern and out of the building as needed. Upon completion in 1801, The Octagon became one of the most important homes in Washington, DC. Visitors included Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Stephen Decatur, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, the Marquis de Lafayette, and John C. Calhoun. The Thorntons were also frequent visitors and remained lifelong friends of the Tayloes. Colonel Tayloe and William Thornton died a month apart in 1828.
In August 1814, during the War of 1812, the British burned many public buildings in Washington, including the U.S. Capitol and the President’s House (now the White House). President and First Lady Dolley Madison rented The Octagon from the Tayloes (for $500 per month), which had escaped the flames. The French minister Louis Serurier, at the request of Mrs. Tayloe, declared the property French territory, flew the French flag, and notified the British, thus ensuring additional safety for the building. The Madisons resided here for six months and it was in the second floor parlor on February 17, 1815 that the Treaty of Ghent ending the war was signed by the President. Today, this treaty still governs relations between the U.S. and Great Britain.
Although Colonel Tayloe died in 1828, Mrs. Tayloe continued to play an active role as a prominent social figure in Washington, DC and lived in The Octagon until her death in 1855. No Tayloe has occupied the residence after this date. For the next 47 years The Octagon served as a girls’ school, the offices of the government’s Hydrographic Office, and, finally, a boarding house. By the 1890’s leading members of the fifty-year-old American Institute of Architects (AIA) determined to move their headquarters from New York to Washington, DC. Like Tayloe a century earlier, members of the architectural profession sought to be close to the White House for political reasons. Recognizing the architectural significance of The Octagon, they approached the Tayloe family, leased the building in 1897 and purchased it in 1902. During AIA’s occupancy prominent organizations were formed there including The McMillan Commission, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, and the Historic American Building Survey (HABS).
With the growth of AIA and construction of the new AIA Headquarters Building on most of The Octagon’s original 18th century site, AIA sold The Octagon to the American Institute of Architects Foundation, now the American Architectural Foundation (AAF), The Octagon’s third owner, in 1968. In 1970, AAF opened The Octagon to the public as an historic house museum and museum of architecture and design. In 1973, AAF and The Octagon received museum accreditation from the American Association of Museums. Reaccreditation was retained consistently during AAF’s period of ownership.
During its 42 years of ownership of The Octagon, AAF took its role as steward of the building, collections, and site very seriously. It was during this period particularly from the mid-1980’s through 2008, that AAF’s Octagon restorations, partnerships, symposia, exhibitions, publications, educational programs, and public outreach were well-recognized nationally and internationally. Both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and The Getty Institute for Conservation presented their national awards to AAF for its exemplary restoration and care of The Octagon. The Save America’s Treasures grant greatly assisted AAF’s continued preservation of the building from 2005 – 2009. The match for this SAT grant was achieved in part from a capital campaign directed by the AIA in celebration of their 150th anniversary.
Discussions between leadership of the AAF and AIA ultimately led to a decision for AIA to purchase The Octagon from AAF. In 2009 ownership was transferred to AIA Legacy, Inc. for the building’s continued care and operation. This transfer enabled the AAF Board of Regents to devote the organization’s full attention to a broader scope of national and international programs in support of the organization’s expanded mission.
Established in 1999, the Save America’s Treasures program is managed by the National Park Service, with the National Endowment Agencies, to preserve and protect nationally significant properties and collections for future generations of Americans. Stories of saving those treasures will be shared through partnership with the American Architecture Foundation.
Featured images courtesy of the American Architectural Foundation.