June 11, 2003
This is where the staff lived and worked, or rather, I should say, where the slaves worked. The Tayloe family, who built the house, were slave-owners from Virginia. Mr. Tayloe was a tobacco farmer, and Mrs. Tayloe was the daughter of the governor of Maryland. They had Octagon House built as their winter home. Washington was deserted farmland when they took bids from Latrobe and Thornton for the construction of their new home. They took Thornton's bid mostly because it was one third the price of Latrobe's. In the final analysis, the price ended up being identical to Labtrobe’s.
The lower level has a kitchen, servants hall, and storage rooms.
There are plaques giving good information about what would have been happening in each of the rooms. Renovations have uncovered a well, or a storage cistern, in the floor of the servants hall. One of the unusual features was a bake oven; at this time, most homes didn’t bake their own bread. They brought the loaves to a community oven to be baked. The Tayloes were obviously very well-to-do.
When we came back upstairs, we were joined by a docent, Bob, who took us on our tour of the remainder of the house. He had an amazing number of anecdotal stories about the house's past and present. We spent a very enjoyable half hour or more touring with him.
Octagon House was completed in 1800. Early in the War of 1812, the French Ambassador lived here. Since he was a supporter of the monarchy, not Napoleon, the British didn’t burn the house. After he moved out and the White House was burned, the Tayloes offered the house to President Madison and his wife Dolly. They accepted and moved in. It was in the upstairs office that the treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, was signed.
Octagon House has for years been the center of a plethora of ghost stores. Some of them center on one of the Tayloe daughters who is supposed to have fallen or been pushed down the main stairway when she fell in love with an unacceptable suitor. This has never been proven. Another story is that people have had the experience of smelling lilacs in the house, said to have been Dolly Madison’s favorite perfume. Now, I am not at all sensitive, but as Irene and I were finishing the tour and walking down the stairs,
I was overwhelmed by a very heavy floral scent. I turned to Irene and asked, "Can you smell that?" Guess what--she could too. No one else was around, and neither one of us was wearing perfume. I can’t explain it. Was it lilac? Maybe!
Entrance fee: $5.
From journal Iz and Irene in DC