Last updated: May 17, 2023
On August 24, 1814, an invading British army set fire to the White House, Capitol, and other public Washington, D.C. buildings in retaliation for an American attack on the Canadian capital, York, the year prior. President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison fled the attack, seeking safety in Leesburg, Virginia, and later Brookeville, Maryland. Upon their return to Washington a few weeks later, with the White House destroyed, the First Family needed another place to stay.
The Madisons found the Octagon House, likely spared from British flames because of the tricolor flag its resident, French Minister Louis Serrurier, flew. This unique Federalist-style home was completed in 1800, and was one of the grandest townhouses in the nation at the time. Although the Madisons were offered use of several homes, the Octagon House was nearby and met their needs, becoming the temporary White House when they moved in on September 8, 1814.
Presidential life quickly resumed a normal pace, although wartime anxieties cast a pall over social gatherings. The Madisons maintained their living quarters on the second floor, in the southeast suite, which consisted of a small vestibule, a large bedroom with a fireplace, and a smaller dressing room. The President used the adjoining circular tower room as a study and at least some of the time as a meeting place for his Cabinet. This was where the Treaty of Ghent was signed on February 17, 1815 before being sent to Congress for ratification, ending the War of 1812.
This masterpiece of late Federalist architecture features Coade stone decorative elements imported from England, as well as local construction materials. The Octagon House became the home of the American Institute of Architects in 1899, and has been in their care ever since.