TwHP Lessons

The Octagon of Washington, D.C.: The House that Helped Build a Capital

Photograph of The Octagon, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Library of Congress
(Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Library of Congress)

n late afternoon on August 24, 1814, the First Lady Dolley Madison frantically worked to save the White House’s treasures. With very little time left as the British Army marched in to sack the new capital, she managed to escape with precious works of American art before the enemy arrived to burn down the White House.

The British occupation of Washington, D.C. lasted only 26 hours, but upon President Madison's return to the city, the White House was in no shape to live in. Though there were calls to move the capital from Washington, D.C., the Madisons refused. President Madison and Dolley Madison took up residence in The Octagon, one of Washington's first great houses, located close to the White House at the corner of 18th Street and New York Avenue. From The Octagon, the president ran his administration and the first lady ran Washington society.

The Octagon was a suitable home for a president. Completed in 1801, it was a winter residence for an eminent Virginian planter, Colonel John Tayloe III, and his family. Dr. William Thornton, the first architect of the U.S. Capitol, designed the house and gave the growing federal city a grand home to help build Washington's reputation. Owned by the American Institute of Architects Foundation today, The Octagon can transport visitors to the early years of the United States, when Washington, D.C., was a small, rural community with great expectations.



About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
  1. Map 1: Map of the United States and neighboring British and Spanish possessions, 1783
  2. Map 2: White House neighborhood in Washington, D.C., early 21st century

Determining the Facts: Readings

  1. Reading 1: A Capital City Founded by Compromise
  2. Reading 2: Introduction to The Octagon
  3. Reading 3: Life in The Octagon
  4. Reading 4: The Octagon in Early D.C.

Visual Evidence: Images
  1. Painting 1: "A view near the President’s house in the City of Washington,” 1813, by S. Lewis
  2. Drawing 1: Plans of The Octagon’s First and Second floors
  3. Photo 1: The Octagon Dining Room
  4. Photo 2: The Octagon, 2011

Putting It All Together: Activities
  1. Capital Decision: An Informal Debate
  2. The Buildings that Built Your Town
  3. A Letter from the 19th Century

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This lesson is based on The Octagon in Washington, D.C., a National Historic Landmark. It is among the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.



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