Determining the Facts
Reading 3: Life in The Octagon
This is a letter written by William Henry Tayloe (1799-1871), to his son Henry Augustine Tayloe (1836-1908). William Henry Tayloe was Colonel John Tayloe III’s son and was born in 1799, the year work on The Octagon began.
Am (an) Account of The Octagon
Written by my father at my request 1870
H.A Tayloe of Mt. Airy
My dear Harry
The Octagon was built by your Grand Father in the administration of President Washington who took much interest & frequently walked to examine its progress. He had much to do with its location. Dr. William Thornton drew the plan. It fronts on the comer of New York Avenue & 18th Street. Ascending steps with Iron rails to a Portico, there is a large Circular Hall with Marble floor, heated formerly with two Imported Coal Stoves - with a Hat & Coat closet on one side. Passing under an Arch supported by Columns is the main passage with a beautiful Winding Stair way to the top of the house. Near there between on the right, is the door (mahogany) into the Drawing Room 30+20 on 18 Street. A private Stairs run back of the Dining room from the basement to the upper floors. In the basement is the House Keepers room, Store rooms, Wine Cellar, Servants Hall, Kitchen with a Well of fine water and pump in it (at that time). On the second floor the Circular room over the Hall way, the Library with two closets with Windows. Two chambers over the Dining room & one over the Drawing room, also Linen and Clothes closets. Five chambers & large closets are in the third story. Formerly the roof was flat, with a Wall relieved by Stone work. The view from the top of all Washington City & surroundings with Alexandria in the distance is most beautiful; but the roof leaked. Hadfield Architects Downing Carpenter put on the present roof which is ugly.
The Garden is inclosed with a Brick wall -with Pillars caped with Stone. In is rear is a
two Story House for the Laundry & Servants rooms - the Stable yard paved & in it a Well of good Water. The Stable is a long two Story Building on the back lines of the lots - a commodious Carriage in the Center - the Coach Horse Stable on one side & the Saddle House and Phaeton Horses on the other side. Your GrandFather had his Phaeton & praise [?] & one sometimes two Saddle horses for his own use - in Archy Nashs care. Your Grandmother had the Coach & four Bays with and odd horse in case of lameness. Harry Jackson Coachman. Gowen Lawson Footman. There is a long brick shed beyond the Stables with Cow Stables. Horse Box & Pounting rooms - also a Smoke & Meat house. The Ice House is on 18th Street with a Store room over it.
The Col. imported the Furniture except the Sideboard & some heavy articles which were made at Annapolis Maryland. Clothing, Books & Shoes Harness Saddles & Bridles and Wines.
After the English burnt the Presidents House President Madison moved into The Octagon. Mrs. Madison taking with her Stewarts painting of Washington she had cut out of its frame. Your Aunt Mrs. Anne Ogle Lewis now has the Table on which the Treaty of Peace between England & the United States was signed.
The Servants wore Blue Quaker Cut Coats turned up with Red Collars and Pockets gold laced. Red Vests- Breeches, Whitest long stockings, Shoes & Buckles,- in full costume shoulder straps or small Epaulettes.
Your Grand Mothers nurse was a White woman born in Philadelphia. She lived to nurse all the Children of your GrandMother & died in The Octagon honored. A monument is over her grave.
Questions for Reading 3
1) Who wrote this letter and why do you think he wrote it? What does it describe?
2) Based on Readings 2-3, roughly estimate how many people you think lived at The Octagon estate in the early 1800s. How many were family? How many do you think were servants?
3) Why do you think The Octagon has a “beautiful winding stair way to the top of the house” and also a “private stair” that goes to the basement. What people mentioned in the letter do you think would have used the “beautiful” stair in the front hall? Who in the letter would use the private stair? Why?
4) Using information from the letter, why do you think President Madison and the First Lady chose to stay at The Octagon? (Refer to Reading 2 and Map 2 if necessary)
Reading 3 is excerpted from a letter in The Octagon Museum Archives.
1 "30+20" refers to the dimensions of the room.