An Artist Visits the White House Past

Paintings by Peter Waddell

Lafayette Square

Once the White House Overlooked a Residential Neighborhood, 1902

1902 Lafayette Square, by Waddell

Peter Waddell, Lafayette Square, oil on canvas, 48″ x 60″, © White House Historical Association.

Essay by William Seale

Peter Waddell’s painting re-creates the historic square north of the White House in 1902, the year Theodore Roosevelt remodeled the house. To the right of the White House, one can see that the conservatories have nearly all been removed from the roof of Jefferson’s west terrace. At the end of this terrace the Temporary Executive Office is under construction. It would become the West Wing. Construction on the east or left side of the house has begun to replace the east terrace, demolished 1869. This will become the new social entrance. At that time the area around Lafayette Square was still residential, so the White House still projected the large scale that had set it apart for a century.

The artist has placed you well above the rooftops, higher than any place to which you could have climbed. Sixteenth Street, immediately below you, is part of an axis in the city plan that pierces the White House and intersects a similar axis from the Capitol on the Mall beyond it. At the intersection Major L’Enfant, planner of the city, envisioned a monument to George Washington, but when the Washington Monument was finally built, it was moved, as you see here, to avoid the original site’s marshy ground.

Lafayette Park, which the square surrounds, was commissioned by President James Monroe in the early 1820s, and named in honor of General Lafayette during his visit to America in 1824 and 1825. Andrew Jackson’s statue on his rearing horse Sam Patch became the centerpiece of the park in 1853, an American masterpiece in bronze. Of interest along the Square are steepled Saint John’s Church at the bottom of the picture, and to the left, the house on the corner was where the widowed Dolley Madison lived for the last thirteen years of her life. Directly across the Square from Mrs. Madison’s house is the historic Commodore Stephen Decatur House, built in 1819 and rich in history, now home of the National Center for White House History, under the auspices of the White House Historical Association.

After many years of alteration and demolition, the low-scale residential quality of Lafayette Square has been restored, thanks to the vision of President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy. Once again it is possible to sense the original scale and setting of the White House in a tranquil context of old houses, heroic monuments, big trees, and the Park’s winding paths and carpet lawns.

Historical Resources for
Lafayette Square
  • District of Columbia Public Library, Washingtoniana Division, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
  • Historic Buildings Survey. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  • Historical Society of Washington D.C.
  • Kelly, Charles. Photograph Collection of Washington, D.C. Gelman Special Collections, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
  • Kiplinger Washington Collection. Washington, D.C.
  • Kohler, Sue A. Sixteenth Street Architecture Volumes I and II. Washington, D.C.: Commission on Fine Arts, 1978 and 1988.
  • Goode, James. Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington’s Destroyed Buildings. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003.
  • Grossman, Jonathan. “The Coal Strike of 1902—Turning Point in U.S. Policy.” Monthly Labor Review (October 1975).
  • Mitchell. Alexander D. Washington, D.C., Then and Now. Thunder Bay Press, 1999.
  • Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.
  • Richardson, Henry Hobson. Hay-Adams Houses. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, Houghton Library.
  • Sanborn Map Company. Washington, D.C. Fire Insurance Maps. Library of Congress: Geography and Maps Division, 1903.
  • Seale, William ed. “The White House Neighborhood.” White House History 27 (2010).
  • Tayloe, Benjamin Ogle. Our Neighbors on Lafayette Square. 1872.
  • United States Chamber of Commerce. Photography Division, Washington, D.C.
  • United States General Services Administration. A History of 736 Jackson Place. Historic Structure Report, 1995.
  • Washington Times. “Temporary White House Well Placed,” June 29, 1902.