Lafayette Square Buildings
After the construction of the White House and St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square became one of the capital’s most desirable addresses and some of the city’s most prominent residents built homes here. By the 1950s. however, only one private residence remained, and the historic homes on the Square made way for government offices. The historic character of the Square is nevertheless still apparent. Among its most notable buildings are:
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WHITE HOUSE: Work began in 1792 on a site chosen by George Washington, making it the oldest building on the Square. Designed by James Hoban in 1792, the White House was first occupied on November 1, 1800, by President John Adams. President Thomas Jefferson began a series of improvements to the executive mansion in 1807 with the help of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
RENWICK GALLERY: The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, designed in 1859 in the Second Empire style by James Renwick, Jr., exhibits American crafts from the 19th to the 21st century.
BLAIR HOUSE: Originally built in 1824 for Dr. Joseph Lovell, the first Surgeon General of the United States Army, the two buildings known as Blair House today serve as the presidential guest house. Its namesake is Francis Preston Blair, who purchased the house in 1836. The house was the site of Robert E. Lee’s 1861 meeting with Lincoln, during which he turned down the president’s request that command the Union armies. President Truman occupied Blair House during the White House restoration of 1948-1952.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY: The Treasury Building is a monument of architectural and historic significance. Designed in the Greek Revival Style, the east wing of the Treasury Building was completed in 1842 by architect Robert Mills, and is noted for its grand colonnade, sweeping across the entire expanse of the structure. Subsequent wings were added between 1855 and 1869, and at the time of its completion, it was one of the largest office buildings in the world. The Department of the Treasury, whose construction on the Square began in 1834 is the oldest departmental building in Washington.
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DECATUR HOUSE: Built in 1818 by Commodore Stephen Decatur and his wife Susan, Decatur House was the first private residence on Lafayette Square. By 1956, when its last owner, Marie Beale, passed away, it was also the last.
WHITE HOUSE HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION: Located at 740 Jackson Place, the WHHA is housed in one of five buildings constructed as part of the redevelopment of Lafayette Square in 1961. This building was previously the site of the National Grange office building.
THE EWELL HOUSE (demolished): This home was the second private residence on the square and built in 1819 by navy surgeon Thomas Ewell. John Warneke rebuilt the home in the 1960′s. Congressman Daniel Sickles lived in this house and Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party made it their headquarters.
712 Jackson Place: This building was built in 1850 for Admiral James Alden. Henry Rathbone, a White House military aide, lived here in 1865. Mr. Rathbone and his fiancé shared a box at the Ford’s Theater with President and Mrs. Lincoln on April 14. Rathbone was wounded while trying to save the President from John Wilkes Booth.
MARCY HOUSE: This residence, built for Cornelia Marcy, the widow of Jacksonian Democrat William Learned Marcy, served as the temporary White House for Theodore Roosevelt during the White House restoration of 1902. Today it stands with Decatur House as the only two surviving 19th century buildings on Jackson Place, and is used by the federal government.
Madison Place ›
TREASURY ANNEX: Designed by the New York architect Cass Gilbert, the Treasury Annex was the first section of a larger building planned for the entire block. Built to accommodate the rapidly expanding Treasury Department during World War I, it continues to house Treasury offices today.
The Freedman’s Savings Bank (demolished):Freedman’s Savings Bank, built in 1869, stood at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Madison Place, opposite the White House. The bank was established at the close of the Civil War to protect the finances of African American soldiers and newly freed slaves. By 1874, the Freedman’s Savings Bank held 57 million dollars in funds, but internal corruption and the Depression of 1873 brought about the bank’s failure that year, shortly after the appointment of Frederick Douglass as its president.
COURT OF CLAIMS ENTRANCE: First the site of the Rodgers House, and later home to the Lafayette Square Opera House/Belasco Theater, the current structure was built in the 1960s as part of the US Court of Claims complex.
Rodgers House (demolished): Originally, this site featured a 30-room house built in 1831 by Commodore John Rodgers. Later serving as a fashionable boarding house, it was also famously the site of the 1859 shooting of Phillip Barton Kelly, the son of Francis Scott Key, by Congressman Daniel Sickles. Sickles shot Key, who had been having an affair with his wife, in full view of pedestrians and the White House. The case and subsequent trial of Sickles drew national media attention, further cementing the Square’s image as a neighborhood unlike any other in the country. In a landmark decision, Sickles was acquitted of murder, based on his plea of temporary insanity, one of the earliest successful uses of this defense.
On April 14, 1865 the Rodger’s House again witnessed violence as the site of the attempted assassination of Secretary of State William Seward by Lewis Payne, a conspirator with John Wilkes Booth in the Lincoln assassination plot.
Lafayette Square Opera House / Belasco Theather (demolished): The Rodgers House was razed in the 1880s and replaced with this theater, first named the Lafayette Square Opera House. Over the next fifty years, performers including Sarah Bernhardt, Al Jolsen, Will Rogers, and Helen Hays would grace its stage. In 1937, the Opera House became the Belasco Theater, one of the only venues in Washington to present African American acts to desegregated audiences.
TAYLOE HOUSE: This house was built by Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, son of Colonel John Tayloe, the original owner of The Octagon on New York Avenue. It was later known as the “Little White House” because of frequent visits by President William McKinley to resident Senator Marcus Hanna. Also Alice Paul and the National Woman’s party led the suffrage pickets known as “Silent Sentinels” from here to the White House. Today this building is part of the National Courts Complex.
MADISON-CUTTS HOUSE: This home was built in 1820 by Massachusetts Congressman, Richard Cutts. His sister-in-law, Dolley Madison, later owned the house and lived here from 1836 until her death in 1849. Later it was headquarters of the Cosmos Club, one of Washington’s most illustrious social clubs.
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ST. JOHN’S CHURCH: Known as the “President’s Parish,” St. John’s Church was the second structure, after the White House, to be built here. It was designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe in a Greek cross design in which all four arms of the church being the same length. Later architects altered the church to its current Latin cross and added the portico and tower. Every president of the United States since James Madison in 1816 has attended services here, giving St. John’s its nickname.
ASHBURTON HOUSE: It was once home to Lord Alexander Berry Ashburton, minister from Great Britain. Lord Ashburton and Daniel Webster conducted negotiations here that led to the signing of the treaty fixing Canada’s border between the United States and the Maritime Provinces in 1842. Today it serves as the Parish House for St. John’s Church.
The HAY-ADAMS HOTEL: The hotel is named for two houses formerly on this location, the Hay House and the Adams House, which were designed by Henry H. Richardson in 1884 and razed in 1927. Henry Adams was the grandson of President John Quincy Adams and a writer/historian. John Hay was a distinguished statesman and diplomat who began his career as a personal aide to President Lincoln.
U.S. CHAMBER OF COMMERCE: The site of the Chamber’s headquarters building was once occupied by a red-brick mansion built in 1819, and home to statesman Daniel Webster from 1841-1843. William W. Corcoran, founder of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, purchased and remodeled the mansion in 1849. Architect Cass Gilbert, designer of the Supreme Court building, designed the current Chamber of Commerce building to resemble an Italian palazzo featuring a central, open air courtyard. The cornerstone was laid in 1922 and the building was completed in 1925.