Lafayette Square is a seven-acre public park located directly north of the White House on H Street between 15th and 17th Streets, NW. The Square and the surrounding structures were designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1970. Originally planned as part of the pleasure grounds surrounding the Executive Mansion, the area was called “President’s Park.” The Square was separated from the White House grounds in 1804 when President Jefferson had Pennsylvania Avenue cut through. In 1824, the Square was officially named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette of France.
Lafayette Square has been used as a race track, a graveyard, a zoo, a slave market, an encampment for soldiers during the War of 1812, and scores of political protests and celebrations. The surrounding neighborhood became the city’s most fashionable 18th century residential area - home to a number of Washington honchoes including Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Henry Seward and South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun.
Andrew Jackson Downing landscaped Lafayette Square in 1851 in the picturesque style. Today’s plan with its five large statues dates from the 1930s. In the center stands Clark Mills’ equestrian statue of President Andrew Jackson, erected in 1853; in the four corners are statues of Revolutionary War heroes: France’s General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette and Major General Comte Jean de Rochambeau; Poland’s General Thaddeus Kosciuszko; Prussia’s Major General Baron Frederich Wilhelm von Steuben.
This walking tour will explore Lafayette Square to the north of the White House and the buildings bordering the Ellipse to the south of the White House. We will start in the center of the square...
In 1853 Clark Mills created the first equestrian statue designed by an American and cast in America. He came by his material honestly - he used bronze melted down from cannon captured by Jackson in the War of 1812. Mills did not approach his commission lightly. Before lifting a chisel he trained a horse to remain in a rearing position so he could study how the animal balanced his great weight.
EXIT JACKSON SQUARE TO THE EAST TO MADISON PLACE (to the rear of the rearing horse).
Lafayette Square rowhouses
In the urban renewal movement of the mid-20th century, wrecking balls began to swing indiscriminately around Lafayette Square. President John Kennedy personally halted plans to level row houses on thesquare but did not want to impede progress. He asked architect John Carl Warnecke to have his cake and eat it to. Warnecke erected his modern buildings but placed them in the center of the block, ringed by the historic residences on the perimeter.
TURN LEFT ON H STREET.
Old British Embassy
1525 H Street, NW
Mathew Clark, clerk of the House of Representatives, started building this house in 1836 but ran out of money. He sold out to the British government. It was in the formal parlor that Lord Alexander Ashburton and Daniel Webster hammered out the treaty that settled the border between Maine and New Brunswick. The house received a Second Empire makeover in the 1870s and acquired its present mansard roof and trimmings. Today it serves as the parish house for St. John’s Church next door.
St. John’s Church
northeast corner of 16th and H streets, NW
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America’s first professional architect, designed this church in 1815 to serve a growing residential community in the neighborhoods of the western end of Washington. Subsequent additions have greatly obscured the historical original church that has seen every President since James Madison attend at least a service here. Pew 54 is the President’s Pew, and is reserved for the chief executive’s use when in attendance.
800 16th Street, NW, northwest corner of H Street
This hotel sits on the site once occupied by two celebrated houses designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson for John Hay and Henry Adams in 1885. Richardson, a Louisiana native working out of Boston was the most influential American architect of the post-Civil War era.Hay was a former private assistant to Abraham Lincoln and Adams a presidential descendent and prominent author.The homes were sacrificed in 1927 for this Italian Renaissance-style apartment-hotel designed by architect Mirhan Mesrobian. Its luxury appointments attracted the most prominent Washington visitors; most recently it was the temporary home of the Obama family as they waited to move across the square into the White House in 2009.
Chamber of Commerce Building
1615 H Street, NW
In 1802, when Washington was still a federal territory, this land was valued at two cents per square foot. Today the United States Chamber of Commerce stands on some of the most historic and valuable pieces of real estate in the nation’s capital. Daniel Webster, a leading American statesman and senator from Massachusetts lived in a three-and-a-half story home here in the 1840s. Other high-powered Washingtonians funneled through the house until the Chamber purchased the property in 1922. Cass Gilbert, designer of the Supreme Court Building and three state capitol buildings, drew up the plans for this majestic Neoclassical office building.
TURN LEFT ON JACKSON PLACE.
southwest corner of H Street, NW and Jackson Place
This is one of the oldest surviving homes in the District and one of only three remaining residential buildings in the country designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the father of American architecture. Completed in 1818 for naval hero Stephen Decatur and his wife Susan, it was the first private residence on President’s Park. Latrobe fashioned a wonderfully proportioned, nearly square, three-story town house of red brick in the austere Federal style of the time. The Decaturs became famous for their lavish Washington parties in the house but the good times were short-lived. Scarcely a year after moving into his home Stephen Decatur was mortally wounded on the dueling ground by Commodore James Barron. A parade of prominent Washingtonians inhabited the house for the next 130 years, many of whom carried on the Decaturs’ tradition of high living so that it was not difficult to convert the house into a museum.
TURN RIGHT ON PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE.
1651-1653 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
This restrained town house, its first section built in the 1820s, has been enlarged and remodeled several times as it has evolved into America’s official guest house since 1942. The story goes that Eleanor Roosevelt wearied of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s nocturnal habits when he was staying in the White House and insisted on some sort of guest residence for visiting heads of state. Blair House, named for Francis Preston Blair, Sr., who bought it in 1836, also did duty as President Truman’s home during the time the White House was being remodeled. The complex was restored in 1988 and enlarged yet again at the same time.
1651-1653 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
The house adjoining Blair House was owned by the Lee family of Virginia. It was here that Robert E. Lee turned down command of the Union Army at the start of the Civil War to cast his lot with his beloved Virginia and the Southern cause. Like its neighbor, the stucco on the facade of the Lee house has been scored to look like more expensive stone blocks.
1661 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW; northeast corner of 17th Street
The Renwick Gallery (named for its architect, not the owner), was erected between 1859 and 1861 by William Wilson Corcoran, co-founder of the Riggs Bank, as exhibition space for his extensive collection of paintings and sculpture. The building was designed by James Renwick, Jr., a prominent New York architect who designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and the Smithsonian Building in Washington. Before any art could be hung the Civil War intervened and the building was seized by the U.S. Army in August 1861 for use as a storage warehouse. It would not be until 1874 that the restored gallery could open as the town’s first art museum. The collection quickly outgrew the space, however, and in 1897, the gallery moved a few blocks away. The government came back and the Renwick Gallery has been on the Smithsonian team since 1972.
Old Executive Office Building
17th Sreet and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Perhaps no building in Washington has generated more derogatory words than the Old Executive Office Building. Constructed by Alfred B. Mullett between 1871 and 1888, the building housed the Departments of State, War, and Navy. Detractors appeared immediately but Mullett did not have to listen to the negative comments long. Considering himself overworked, underpaid, and severely under appreciated, he sued the government for more money. When that came to nothing, Mullett killed himself. His gray Virginia granite office building that covered ten acres and featured 900 projecting and superimposed Doric columns lived on, not much more happily. President Herbert Hoover commented that it “was of all the buildings in town, the one we regret the most.” President Harry Truman piled on two decades later calling it “the greatest monstrosity in America.” The building was nearly demolished in 1957 but the money it would cost to tear it down was considered too great. Its second century of life has begun much happier - now considered an architectural treasure millions of dollars have been invested in its upkeep for use by America’s Executive branch of government.
TURN LEFT ON 17TH STREET.
604 17th Street, NW
Built in the 1840s, this was an early speculative office built specifically to be leased to the federal government. It also pioneered the use of central heating and steel beams in construction.
TURN RIGHT ON NEW YORK AVENUE.
The Octagon House
1799 New York Avenue, NW
Colonel John Tayloe, reputed to be the richest Virginia plantation owner of his time, built this manor house in Washington at the suggestion of fellow planter George Washington. He hired William Thornton, a Scotsman trained in medicine who dabbled in architecture and whose design was chosen for the United States Capitol, in 1798. Thornton responded with one of the most influential houses ever built in Washington, fitted into one of the city’s odd building lots created by city planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s love of diagonal avenues. Thornton’s intricate plan combined a circle, two rectangles, and a triangle to create the elegant design. Sandstone was carted from Acquia Creek and the bricks and lumber were all manufactured locally while the luxurious interior appointments were imported from England.
RETURN TO 17TH STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
Corcoran Gallery of Art
southwest corner of New York Avenue and 17th Street
This is where William Corcoran’s art collection ended up after shuffling down the street from the Renwick Gallery. Architect Ernest Flagg, a disciple of the classical training from the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, infused Greek details into his 1897 composition.
American National Red Cross
430 17th Street
Begun as a remembrance to “the heroic women of the Civil War” in 1915, this Vermont marble memorial has expanded to occupy an entire block. The building, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965, houses some of the most exquisite art and artifacts acquired by the American Red Cross since it formal inception in 1881. At the forefront of this collection are the famous Tiffany Windows designed and constructed by the renowned studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the New York City jeweler. The three-paneled stained glass windows were commissioned in 1917 and illustrate the most significant values of the Red Cross: hope, faith, charity and love. They are reputed to be the largest set of windows still in their original state.
DAR Constitution Hall
1776 D Street, NW
Ground was broken for the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall on June 22, 1928. The cornerstone was laid by Mrs. Calvin Coolidge on October 30, 1928, using the trowel George Washington used to lay the cornerstone at the Capitol in 1793. John Russell Pope designed three different classical facades for the hall, permitting an entrance on three sides and promoting excellent circulation of air through the building that fills an entire block. Mrs. Herbert Hoover was the guest speaker at the formal dedication on April 19, 1929. The first musical event in the hall was on November 2, 1929 and featured Anna Case, Efrem Zimbalist, Sophie Braslau, and Hans Barth.
Organization of American States
17th Street & Constitution Avenue, NW
Andrew Carnegie gave $5,000,000 in part to build this marbled headquarters in 1910 for the world’s oldest international organization, promoting peace and progress among the nations of North, South and Central America. The property is studded with memorials and statuary. It was erected on the site of the legendary Van Ness mansion that was erected by Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1816 as the costliest residence in America.
Constitution Avenue at 15th Street, NW and 17th Street, NW
Charles Bullfinch, the great Boston architect, who was working on the Capitol Building in the 1820s, designed these one-room gatehouses with rusticated Aquia Creek sandstone for the Capitol grounds. The classically inspired doorways feature flanking Doric columns and richly decorated entablatures. In the 1870s when the Capitol grounds were given their first formal landscaping by the Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted the old entrance buildings were salvaged and placed at the corners of the Ellipse.
WALK NORTH THROUGH THE ELLIPSE TOWARDS THE WHITE HOUSE.
north-center edge of the Ellipse
In his plan for Washington, Pierre Charles L’Enfant intended a column to be placed one mile east of the Capitol, “from which all distances of places through the continent were to be calculated.” Instead, in 1804 the Jefferson Pier was placed on the meridian of the White House due west of the Capitol to mark the Washington meridian. The current Zero Milestone monument was conceived by Good Roads Movement advocate Dr. S. M. Johnson, formally proposed on June 7, 1919. Designed by Washington architect Horace W. Peaslee, the squat marker of pinkish granite is about 2 feet square and about 4 feet high. The bronze disk on top of the milestone is an adaptation from ancient portolan charts of the so-called wind roses or compass roses from the points of which extended radial lines to all parts of the then known world―the prototype of the modern mariner’s compass. The permanent Zero Milestone was dedicated in a ceremony on June 4, 1923. At present, only roads in the Washington, D.C. area have distances measured from it.
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
The White House was designed by James Hoban, an Irish-born and-trained architect who won a competition organized by President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1792. The competitions were held to determine who would design the nation’s two most important buildings, the President’s House and the Capitol. It is believed that Jefferson, competing under a pseudonym, submitted designs and lost both competitions. Hoban’s inspiration was drawn from an Anglo-Irish villa called the Leinster House in Dublin. Although President Washington oversaw construction, he never lived in the house, the only President not to do so. Thomas Jefferson, upon moving to the house in 1801 was not impressed and dismissed it as being too big; he made several structural changes and landscaped the grounds. The White House was torched by the British in the War of 1812 and although the fire was put out by a summer thunderstorm, all that remained were the outside, charred walls and the interior brick walls. Madison brought Hoban back to restore the mansion, which took three years. It was during this construction that the house was painted white. Hoban later added the South and North Porticos, using a slightly altered design by Latrobe. Expansion and further alterations came when President Theodore Roosevelt declared the house unsafe to inhabit. He turned the third-story attic into habitable rooms and added the Executive Office wing and the East Gallery. Although used informally for some time, it was President Theodore Roosevelt who gave the White House its official name. Finally, the last major renovation took place when President Harry Truman decided that again the building was unsafe and had to be gutted. Steel replaced the original frame and paneling, and a balcony was added to the South Portico.
FOLLOW THE PATH TO THE EAST TO 15TH STREET AND TURN LEFT.
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
This is the oldest of the government’s departmental buildings, sited by Andrew Jackson on the shoulder of the White House, obliterating the “reciprocity of view” down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol ingrained in the city plan by L’Enfant. South Carolina native Robert Mills, the first trained American architect built the east and center wings between 1836 and 1842. Each of the 30 Ionic columns Mills outfitted the building with are 36 feet tall and carved out of a single piece of granite. Spreading across five acres, the Treasury Building, which has seen several additions, is the world’s largest Greek Revival building.
TURN LEFT ON PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE.
northeast corner of Madison Place and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
This addition to the Treasury came on line in 1919, designed by Cass Gilbert with a profusion of columns in homage to Mills’ Treasury Building.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT LAFAYETTE SQUARE.