Funded by one of the newly created Federal City’s leading families, Octagon House was physically constructed with enslaved labor. Originally built between 1799 and 1800 as a town residence for Colonel John Tayloe of Mount Airy, Richmond County, Virginia, the Octagon was designed by Dr. William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol. The unusual house is notable for its inhabitants and their place in American and DC history, as well as for its strikingly original architecture.
The house's first inhabitants, the Tayloes, were a plantation family who constructed many additional outbuildings on the property, only one of which—an ice house—survives. The Tayloes enslaved hundreds of people to work for them, including 12 to 18 individuals at the Octagon. Although John Tayloe had originally planned to use the house as a winter residence only, the family lived there year-round from 1818 to 1855.
As one of the city's finest structures, the house served as the temporary residence of President James Madison for six months, following the burning of the White House during the War of 1812. It is the only surviving house other than the White House to have served as the Presidential residence.
The Octagon is built of red brick over a stone basement and is trimmed with Aquia Creek sandstone. Not an octagon at all, the house is an irregular hexagon with a projecting semicircular bay that contains the circular entrance hall on the main floor and the "Treaty Room" on the second floor.
This three-story brick house breaks with the traditional late Georgian and early Federal house planning that preceded it. Many of the leading European architects of the late 18th century sought to achieve a new direction in architecture through a design philosophy that sought to combine simple, basic geometrical shapes while using a minimum of unnecessary decoration. Thornton, the Octagon's architect, traveled extensively in both England and in France and was no doubt alive to this philosophy. Presented with a building site that did not lend itself readily to a stereotyped solution, Thornton took full advantage of his opportunity and brought to the new Federal City a building of startling freshness and originality which has never been surpassed.
Due to its architectural originality, the building became the home of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1898. In the 1970s, the AIA moved to an outbuilding behind the house, on the former site of the Octagon's outbuildings, and began to operate the old house as a museum, which is now administered by the Architects Foundation.
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
National Register: October 15, 1966
National Historic Landmark: December 19, 1960
This site is included in the Capital City Slavery Tour for its owner’s enslavement of twelve to eighteen individuals on the property, and the construction of the home through enslaved labor. For further information on the role of enslaved laborers in the development of Washington, D.C., view the sources below or explore our Capital City Slavery Digital Exhibit.