- Historic Sites
I Love Washington
A noted historian’s very personal tour of the city where so much of the American past took shape—with excursions into institutions famous and obscure, the archives that are the nation’s memory, and the haunts of some noble ghosts
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
What I’m drawn to and moved by is historical Washington—the presence of history anywhere you turn.
Or consider the Octagon House, three blocks over at Eighteenth and New York. The Octagon, which is actually hexagonal, is a contemporary of the White House and one of the architectural gems of Washington, in the Federal style. It’s occupied, appropriately, by the American Institute of Architects, and, like the Wilson House, open to the public.
In 1814, after the British burned the White House, James and Dolley Madison and their pet macaw moved into the Octagon for a stay of six months. The peace treaty that ended the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent, was signed in the circular parlor over the main entrance. The house has a magnificent circular stairway, all its original mantels, most of its original woodwork, its original marble floor in the foyer. The architect was William Thornton, the first architect of the Capitol.
Reportedly there is also a secret tunnel in the basement leading to the White House. It is one of those old Washington stories you hear again and again, like the story of alligators in the sewers of New York. It is even given as gospel in the excellent American Guide Series book on Washington. But the tunnel doesn’t exist, sad to say. Nor apparently is there an Octagon ghost, as reported repeatedly. The original owner was a rich Virginia planter named John Tayloe. Supposedly he had a beautiful daughter who, thwarted in love, threw herself from the stairway to her death on that marble floor, and her ghost has haunted the house ever since. As it happens, Tayloe had fifteen children, none of whom is known to have committed suicide, and for twenty-odd years, anyway, nobody has heard or seen a sign of a ghost.
I can’t help wonder about the spirits of Jefferson and Jackson, Lafayette, Daniel Webster, and others known to have dined or slept in the house. And what of Dolley herself, in her rose-colored Paris robe, her white turban with its tiara of ostrich plumes? An eyewitness to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent said that the “most conspicuous object in the room” was Mrs. Madison, “then in the meridian of life and queenly beauty …”
(“Of course, there were better times,” growls an aged senator in Gore Vidal’s novel Washington, D. C.)
On the high rise of R Street in Georgetown is a palatial red-brick affair with white trim, all very Italianate, which was once a summer residence for Ulysses S. Grant and later owned by Rear Adm. Harry H. Rousseau, one of the builders of the Panama Canal. In the 1930s it was taken over as bachelor quarters by a band of exuberant young New Dealers known as the Brain Trust, with Tom (“Tommy the Cork”) Corcoran as their leader. One of them remembers a night when a friend dropped by bringing his own grand piano. “A moving van arrived and three or four fellows got the piano up the stairs and into the living room. Tom and his friend played duets all evening. Then the boys packed up the piano and put it back into the moving van.”
There is John Kennedy’s house, also in Georgetown, at 3307 N Street, and the house on Massachusetts Avenue off Dupont Circle where Alice Roosevelt Longworth held court for so many years. And directly across the street stands the monstrous, gabled brick pile that once belonged to Sen. James G. Blaine, “Blaine of Maine,” a brilliant rascal if ever there was, who nearly became President in 1884. It was a puzzle to many of his time how somebody with no more than a senator’s wages could afford such a place.
The elegant headquarters of the National Trust for Historic Preservation at Eighteenth and Massachusetts was once Washington’s most sumptuous apartment house. Andrew Mellon, who served three Presidents as Secretary of the Treasury and who gave the country the National Gallery, occupied the top floor. On G Street on Capitol Hill, near the old Marine Barracks, you can find the little house where John Philip Sousa was born. On the crest of the hill at Arlington, across the Potomac where the sun goes down, stands the columned Custis-Lee Mansion. From the front porch there you get the best of all panoramas of the city.
Some of the history that has happened here I have seen with my own eyes. When John Kennedy’s funeral procession came up Connecticut Avenue, the foreign delegations led by Charles de Gaulle, I watched from an upstairs room at the Mayflower Hotel. It had been reserved as a vantage point by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , so that Barbara Tuchman might describe the scene much as she did the funeral of Edward VII in the opening chapter of The Guns of August. Marquis Childs of the Post-Dispatch, a friend, had been kind enough to include me. So I shared a window with Mrs. Tuchman. “Look at de Gaulle, look at de Gaulle,” she kept saying, as he came striding along in his simple khaki uniform, taller than anyone, his face a perfect mask.
On the afternoon when the Senate voted for the Panama Canal Treaties, I was watching from the gallery, and later that evening, as Washington was lashed by a regular Panama deluge, I was among the several hundred people who crowded into the State Dining Room at the White House to celebrate, to see, as it turned out, Jimmy Carter enjoy one of the few happy moments of his administration.