You may have walked right by the Octagon Museum without even noticing it on your way to sexier D.C. historic spots, like the White House or DAR Constitution Hall. Once you get those out of your system though, stop at this small but important structure — one of the first homes built in Washington, D.C.
Because it is known as the Octagon House, you might think it’s shaped like a stop sign, but it isn’t. The four-story home-turned-museum is a triangle flanked by two rectangles, attached to a circle and two more short walls to close the gap.
Built at the turn of the 19th century for Col. John Tayloe III, a wealthy plantation owner from Virginia, the house has secured an important place in U.S. history. Tayloe offered his quarters to President James Madison and his wife Dolley when the British burned the White House during the War of 1812. Madison accepted the offer and began using the second-floor study as a de facto Oval Office. He even signed the Treaty of Ghent there, which ended the war in 1815.
Once the war was over and the White House was repaired, the Madisons moved out and the Tayloe family once again had the Octagon House to themselves.
Years later, the house served as a hospital for Union soldiers during the Civil War. It eventually became a tenement building, housing up to 10 families at a time. The house subsequently fell into disrepair, and the American Institute of Architects bought it in 1898 and restored it for use as their headquarters.
The house became a museum in 1970, and some of the rooms display architecture exhibits.
It’s open for tours only two days a week, and still it’s not crowded. When I made my ascent up the concrete front staircase one recent afternoon and slowly opened the creaky door, the receptionist was the only one in the building. The main entrance opens into the circular room, and the dining room and drawing room flank it on either side.
The dining room, perpetually set for a party of eight, once hosted the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Andrew Jackson and the Marquis de Lafayette. The ornate moldings, chair rail and mantel underscore Tayloe’s wealth (though even at the time, the material was a composite copy of the real thing).
The center hall separates the dining room and the drawing room, and it boasts a grand stairway, soaring windows and tall, oval-topped niches in the walls housing oversized vases of flowers.
The drawing room — home to all the best parties in the early 1800s — now holds a small table and four chairs placed under a heavy glass chandelier. The room was not furniture-heavy even in its heyday, however, as all available space was needed for guests.
The floorboards creaked as I made my way to the grand staircase, and I tiptoed carefully up the wooden stairs to quiet my footsteps in the wide-open hall. (Rumors abound that Octagon House is haunted. While I was in the basement, my heart jumped into my throat as I distinctly heard footsteps but saw no one. My fears were quelled when I realized a second visitor had unexpectedly entered the home and was touring the room above me.)
The second floor, the larger rooms which once served as bedrooms, now house architecture exhibits. But the round room, known as the Treaty Room, contains the actual table and chair used by Madison when he signed the Treaty of Ghent.
The third floor has five rooms — presumably once used as bedrooms — but they are office space now and not open to the public.
The basement was the slaves’ quarters. A big, open kitchen contains a worktable, chairs, hutches, bowls, pots, pans and more. The large brick oven at the end was used to cook meals for the family and guests.
Across the hall is the bedroom of the hired housekeeper, which contains a bed and chair. Literature in the house says slaves may have slept on the kitchen floor on mattresses. Also in the basement is a wine cellar with large, rough brick compartments for barrels of wine.
Touring this historic building takes less than an hour, even with careful study, so plan to stop as part of a long lunch or a visit to other attractions.
Octagon Museum, 1799 New York Ave. NW, (Blue Line, Farragut West); Hours, 1-4 p.m. Thursday and Friday.