Octagon House – when six equals eight










I have driven past the Octagon House hundreds of times because my wife worked on the same block for 30 years. I never knew its full story; just that it was an oddly-shape corner building near the White House at 18th St. and New York Ave. NW.

Designed in 1801 by William Thornton, who was the first architect of the U.S. Capitol, the house served as a temporary home to president James Madison after the British burned the White House in 1814. The British left the house alone because it was a temporary embassy for France. Today, it’s a museum of Washington’s early days.

The three-story house includes a circle, two rectangles and a triangle in its floorplan. Many building materials are local, including Aquia Creek sandstone. The decorative materials came from England. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

Some say it’s haunted by two daughters of the original owner – Col. John Tayloe, a prominent Virginia planter who built the house at George Washington’s urging. In separate instances, a daughter arguing with Tayloe on the upper stairs fell to her death. Some say ghosts of slaves that once lived in the rear of the home now haunt it.

Oh, one more thing. It has six sides, not eight like an octagon. Go figure. Not the first number that was fudged in Washington.

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Let the lions roar

There are lots and lots of lion statues around town. You get five bonus points if knowing this one is part of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial on E St. N.W. between 4th and 5th Streets (across the National Building Museum.)

Designed by architect Davis Buckley, the Memorial has two walls of grey-blue marble 304 feet long inscribed with nearly 19,000 names of police officers that died on duty dating back to 1792. The bronze lions are shown protecting their cubs. Translation – police protect the public.

Every April, 10,000 daffoldils are planted at the memorial along with the ongoing 60,000 plants and 128 trees.

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Finally, an honest man in Judiciary Square

How many statues are there of Abraham Lincoln around town? That’s a good question. And, I don’t know the answer.

What’s special about this one in front of the D.C. Court of Appeals (Lincoln was a lawyer, after all) is it was the first public monument of Lincoln following his 1865 assassination. It was paid by District residents.

Lincoln stands on a pedestal with a bundle of sticks, which was the symbol of the law in ancient Rome. Sculptor Lee Flannery knew Lincoln so it’s a good likeness. It was dedicated in 1868.

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What’s the most photographed statue in town?

Nobody really knows, but if it’s not Abraham Lincoln at his memorial than it’s surely Andrew Jackson here in Lafayette Park.

Why? First, it’s a great statue. Second, it’s right by the White House. Third, it’s a dynamite shot, especially at night with the White House as the backdrop.

Our seventh president, Jackson is shown aboard his horse wearing the uniform as a major general of his Tennessee militia while reviewing his troops shortly before beating the British in the Battle of New Orleans in the last battle of the War of 1812. “Old Hickory’s” fiery temper is shown by his horse’s front two hooves raised, but Jackson has a snug grip on the reins while tipping his cap to the troops.

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Stephen DeCatur House remains special

Stephen DeCatur must have been one cool cat, if not an unlucky one.

After fighting in the War of 1812 and later facing pirates off the Barbary Coast, DeCatur used the “prize money” from Congress to build this three-story brick house within sight of the White House in Lafayette Park at the corner of Jackson Place and H St. N.W.

Too bad he only lived in it only 14 months before – bam – dying in a duel. Seems Commodore James Baron objected to DeCatur court martialing him and shot him in a one-on-one satisfaction of honor.

DeCatur’s wife moved out immediately. It has since been the home of one vice president, three secretaries of state, five congressmen, a British prime minister and the French and Russian delegations. Nowadays it’s a fine naval museum open to the public.

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Rochambeau led French to America’s aid

Gen. Comte Jean de Rochambeau is shown in Lafayette Park as a major general of the Continental Army directing his arm with his outstretched right hand with an unfurled copy of the battleplan in his left.

Underneath Rochambeau is the lady figure of Liberty – two flags in her left hand to signify the unity of France and America. He has a sword ready in his right hand to defend the eagle that represents America. The bow of the boat she has just left is seen behind her while the waves break at her feet. The eagle’s right claw grasps the 13 stars that represent the 13 colonies while its left claw fends off opponents. A branch of laurel lies at its feet to signify peace.

On the west side is Rochambeau’s family coat of arms while on the east is a coat of arms representing France. On the rear is a quote from George Washington to Rochambeau that they have worked together as brothers.

Rocheambeau led nearly 7,000 French soldiers as part of France’s aid to America. He was present at Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, Va. that ended the war.

The statue is a copy of one in Rochambeau’s French birthplace. It was dedicated in 1902 by president Teddy Roosevelt with the Rochambeau family onlooking.

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Lafayette Park urns have their mystery

Much like the urns in the gardens of the Versailles Palace, these two urns were forged in the same furnaces that created Union cannons in the Civil War. They were used for flowers in the late 1880s, but now sit on pedestals in Lafayette Park. They are inscribed simply “Ordnance Dept. U.S. Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. 1872.

The urns are 5 feet high, 4 feet wide. Little is known of their creation and no classical precedent can be assigned.

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Lafayette – the Frenchman that Americans loved

The General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette was a key figure in American winning its independence. Lafayette blocked the escape route of the British ships at Yorktown, thus forcing Gen. Cornwallis to surrender to George Washington.

Lafayette stands atop a marble pedestal wearing civilian dress, but carrying a sword. He holds a cloak in his left arm while his right is outstretched, maybe to friends.

The woman below symbolizes American. She beckons Lafayette with a sword to implore him to fight for America.

On each side are two generals. On the right are Comte de Estaing and Grasse with an anchor indicating their French naval forces sent to help. On the left are Comte de Rochembeau and Chevalier de Portail with the cannon indicating their French army. On the rear side are two cherubs indicating the delight of the people.

The bronze statue is eight feet high and four feet wide, but the whole monument is 36 feet high and 20 feet wide.

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My favorite places — Korean War Veterans Memorial

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Wordless Wednesday: George, almost in birthday suit

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Don’t rush into World War II Memorial – you’re missing out

I didn’t notice the bas relief panels the first time I walked into the World War II Memorial. Like many, I was eager to see the fountain and the memorial from the middle.

OK, go ahead. But when you’re done, linger at the entrances of the north and south ceremonial walls. There are 12 bas relief sculpture panels on each depicting the Atlantic and Pacific fronts.

The panels show the complete influence of the war on the country from agricultural and industrial to military and everyday people from the heartland.

Based on actual photos, th,e bas reliefs were inspired by the Pension Building (now National Building Museum) where the style that makes people the focus of each.

I just added 20 minutes to your visit to the memorial.


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My favorite places — Tomb of the Unknowns

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Wordless Wednesday: Georgetown waterfront

Georgetown water park

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Remembering Jackie Kennedy in the park

Everyone usually thinks of Jackie Kennedy alongside her husband John F. Kennedy at the eternal flame in Arlington National Cemetery.

But, you can catch a glimpse of her name outside a one-time dorm along 21st St. N.W. when attending George Washington University. And, there’s a nice plaque in front of the Stephen DeCatur House at 16th and H Sts. N.W. at the northwest edge of Lafayette Park.

Why? The First Lady probably saved the White House neighborhood.

When JFK was in office from 1961-63, Lafayette Park was a mess. In 163 years, the seven-acre lot was a race track, dump, grave yard and even the site of a murder that became the first temporary insanity defense.

But thanks to Jackie, it was revitalized during her time to become the beautiful park it is today that thousands of people pass to the White House.

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Remembering JFK at Holy Trinity church

Trinity ChurchHoly Trinity Church (3513 N. St. NW) was the city’s first Catholic church in 1792. In the early years, parishioners either rented space on the pews or brought their own chair. But don’t worry, today’s 10,000 parishioners have ample room to sit.

In 1862, 200 military wounded and sick were treated here after the Second Battle of Bull Run. The government used the church for one year before returning it with a $350 payment.

This plaque remembers John F. Kennedy worshipping here regularly until his 1963 death. Indeed, it was the last service he attended before assassinated.

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Wordless Wednesday: Life on the C&O Canal


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George Washington and Purple Heart

Purple HeartThere’s a marker just a few yards left to the entrance into Mount Vernon that is often overlooked but a pretty cool remembrance of history.

George Washington wasn’t allowed by the Continental Congress to promote Revolutionary War soldiers based on merit. But, Washington found a way around it, establishing the Badge of Military Merit on Aug. 7, 1782.

According to The Purple Heart “… The General ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit directs whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding.”

While a number of badges were awarded, the only three known recipients were
Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons; Sergeant William Brown, 5th and Sergeant Daniel Bissel, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry.

The award was discontinued after the war, but Gen. John “Blackjack” Pershing created the Purple Heart in 1932 in General Order No. 3 to honor the bicentennial of Washington’s birth.

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All aboard for Randolph

If you’ve ever taken a train at Union Station, you’ve passed this statue. It’s right by the entrance to the boarding area.

A. Philip Randolph was among America’s leading black labor and civil rights leaders. The plaque beneath the bust says Randolph founded the brotherhood of sleeping car porters (hence the railroad station connection) and “conceived and initiated the 1963 march on Washington.”

Randolph first organized shipyard and dock workers before moving on to porters in 1937. His first porters contract included a $2 million raise, shorter hours and overtime pay.

Randolph moved on to discrimination in 1942. His work led to the 1963 civil rights rally where Randolph witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Had a Dream Speech.” Ironically, the son of an Episcopal minister was an atheist.

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Wordless Wednesday: Changing of the Guard

ANC guard

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The best view in town is . . .

Tourists ask this all the time.

It’s not from the top of the Washington Monument despite being the highest point in town. Ditto for the Old Post Office Pavillion or the National Cathedral. And while the porch at the Newseum is great for seeing Capitol Hill, all these points aren’t as good as two places across the Potomac River.

The best daytime view of Washington (above) is from the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. The whole town is layed out in front of you. The same essential view can be seen from nearby Arlington House. Both require a moment to catch your breath after climbing a steep hill, but it’s worth it.

The best nighttime view is from the nearby Netherlands Carillion between Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima memorial. You can line up the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol. The cemetery is closed at night so this is your best stop, though the Air Force Memorial on the other side of ANC is pretty good, too.

The most picturesque view from street level is M St. in Georgetown. Just a nice glimpse of the old days. But, Embassy Row along Massachussetts Ave. with its flags runs a close second. Of course, the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin is the best, but only lasts a week or so.

What are your favorites?

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