When last we saw President James Madison, it was August 26, 1814 and he was in Brookeville, Maryland. The British had set the White House ablaze and the President, after fleeing the Battle of Bladensburg with the defeated American troops and wandering for two days through Virginia and Maryland, had ended up in Brookeville and spent the night. He returned to DC the next day.
He eventually reunited with his wife, Dolley (who had fled separately to Virginia). Since returning to the burnt White House was not an option, they rented a house a couple of blocks away.
The Octagon House, as it is now called (although it’s more hexagon-ish, as you’ll see below), was designed by William Thornton, architect of the US Capitol. It was completed in 1801 and was a town house for wealthy Virginia planter John Tayloe III. (Tayloe also owned Menokin Plantation in Warsaw, Virginia, which is one of my all-time favorite historic sites and my all-time favorite site tour. One of the Octagon’s rooms currently houses an exhibit about Menokin.) Tayloe was not a Madison fan — he was of a different political persuasion — so I’m not sure how it all came about. But rent it to the Madisons he did. And when the War of 1812 ended a few month later and time came for the President to sign the Treaty of Ghent on February 17, 1815, Madison did so at the Octagon House.
It was the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent a couple of weeks ago, and the Octagon House hosted a reenactment of the event. The house is now owned by the American Institute of Architects, who bought it from the Tayloes in the early 20th century to house AIA headquarters. AIA has since built a sleek, modern structure for their offices — their building cunningly curls around the north side of the Octagon house — and opened the Octagon as a Madison-era house museum.
“Good afternoon.” A lady in a Jane Austin gown and feathered head-dress greeted me when I entered the drawing room of the Octagon. “I’m Mrs. Madison. Is this your first visit to the house?”
“Do you have any questions?”
I should have asked her if she had really saved the White House’s copy of the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from the approaching British. That’s what we learned in school in the stone age, but more recent scholarship cite some discrepancies in the story. She’s still credited with being responsible for securing the portrait, though. The Madisons were close to both Washington and Jefferson, so I might have asked her which was her favorite.
But I went blank. The best I could manage was, “Does anything in the Octagon House belong to you?” I know — lame.
The answer was no. With the British bearing down on her, she had no time to remove any personal items.
I had just enough time before the reenactment to take a self-guided tour of the house. Only the drawing room is furnished as a residence; the rest of the rooms house exhibits. As befits a property belonging to the AIA, its appeal is the architecture.
It’s a circle topped by an upside down triangle flanked by two rectangles. In the outline of the first floor, above, the circle is the entrance hall, the triangle houses the stair well, and rectangles 1 and 2 are the drawing room and the dining room. On the second floor, above the drawing and dining rooms are bedrooms, and above the round entrance hall is the round Treaty Room. That’s where James Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent. The table in the photo below is the actual table on which he signed the treaty, on exhibit in the Treaty Room.
Oddly enough, the reenactment of the signing of the treaty did not include a reenactment of the signing of the treaty. Faux Madison chatted a little with the audience as we waited for the Treaty to be delivered from Blodgett’s Hotel. Blodgett’s (at 7th and F NW, where the Hotel Monaco now stands) was where Congress convened after the British burned the Capitol, and it was there that the Senate ratified the treaty.
The faux treaty showed up with two faux soldiers from Fort McHenry, who thanked Madison for promoting the commander of Fort McHenry, George Armistead, in the aftermath of the Battle of Baltimore. They lead a Hip, Hip, Huzzah for the President, and that was the end.