Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C.
Framed by nineteenth-century rowhouses that were once home to Washington's political elite, Lafayette Square is a picturesque public park located directly north of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue
Planned as a quiet place of respite for the president of the United States, Lafayette Square became a crossroads of history as generations of residents and visitors to the nation’s capital lived, worked, gathered, and strolled through its manicured grounds. Yet as the city grew up around it, the former President’s Square retained its nineteenth-century character, evoking a very different Washington.
Although now an elegantly designed park, Lafayette Square had humble beginnings. Crews constructing the White House used it for construction staging and not until Thomas Jefferson’s presidency was the area fenced and made part of the executive mansion grounds. Because of this proximity, houses soon began springing up around the square with notable occupants including Stephen Decatur, Martin van Buren, Henry Clay, Dolley Madison, John Hay, and Henry Adams. In 1851, Lafayette Square was landscaped based on recommendations by Alexander Jackson Downing. The area remained a fashionable residential district into the twentieth century.
As the government grew and larger buildings encroached, the executive office looked to the quiet streets of Jackson and Madison places to house government workers. In 1901, architect Cass Gilbert proposed a group of office buildings adjacent to the park, and although never executed, the idea remained into the 1950s. During the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, these plans were renewed and a proposal for monumental, strikingly modern office buildings flanking Lafayette Square received funding from Congress. Shortly before the plan’s fruition, in a watershed event for the historic preservation movement, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy intervened and lobbied the U.S. General Services Administration to stop imminent demolition of the historic houses. At the request of the John F. Kennedy administration, architect John Carl Warnecke conceptualized a plan through which the extant Madison Place and Jackson Place houses were restored and supplemented by new federal buildings designed to complement the historic setting.
Lafayette Square was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and the surrounding buildings are now occupied by a variety of federal agencies.
Lafayette Square is a seven-acre park of green space and public art, lined by nineteenth-century townhouses facing the most famous residence in the nation—the White House. Named after the Marquis de Lafayette following his tour of the United States in 1824–1825, the park is attractively landscaped with picturesque walkways, fountains, and five statues: an equestrian depiction of Andrew Jackson in the center of the square, and four statues depicting foreign Revolutionary War heroes on the corners.
The Jackson Place complex consists of six historic nineteenth-century rowhouses lining the square, between which are five historically sympathetic recent buildings. The block begins at 704 Jackson Place, which is part of the President’s Guest House complex, and terminates on H Street at the 1819 Stephen Decatur House, designed by Benjamin Latrobe. The plans of the attached houses are typical of the era—three stories with a basement and three bays wide, with off center entrances on a piano nobile. All houses are of masonry construction, with either sandstone or brick decorative trim and door surrounds.
Continuing from the President’s Guest House complex, the third building from the southern end of the block is the Italianate-style Trowbridge House—708 Jackson Place—built in the 1860s and a typical three-bay example of a mid-nineteenth century attached house with a strong bracketed cornice and sandstone door surround. The grey slate mansard roof was added in the 1880s reflecting changing architectural taste. The next two buildings on the block, the James Alden/Henry Rathbone and Mary Jessup Blair houses—712 and 716 Jackson Place—date from the late 1860s. The Jessup Blair house adds variety to the block with its creamy white painted brick.
North of the new building at 726 Jackson Place, the other three historic attached houses at 730, 734, and 736 Jackson Place—the O’Toole Steele, Glover, and Knower-Scott houses respectively—date from the 1860s to 1870s. These houses maintain the rhythm of the block, while interjecting more elaborate details such as the two-story bay window fronting the Glover House. The ornate door and window surrounds are much heavier and forceful here, particularly in the paired, balustraded windows of the Knower-Scott House.
Madison Place sits at the eastern border of the square, across H Street from the monumental Veterans Administration Building—a reminder of what Lafayette Square might have become without Jacqueline Kennedy’s intervention. The circa 1820 Dolley Madison House, a simple, three-story buff colored stucco building, is a quintessential example of the reserved Federal style of the early Republic. The first three bays are the original house, with a later addition constructed after the building was purchased by the Cosmos Club in the 1880s. The ornamental wrought iron porch was added after the former first lady sold the house to explorer Charles Wickes.
The five-story Cosmos Club, constructed between the Madison and Tayloe houses, dates from 1910 and is based upon designs of local architect and club member Thomas J.D.Fuller. Built to provide a connection between the two historic houses, it serves as a restrained institutional counterpoint to the abutting Federal style buildings.
The Benjamin O. Tayloe House, built 1828, is another classic example of the Federal style. Although also renovated over time by later occupants, including an addition to the north to provide a connection to the Cosmos Club, the original section of the three-story Tayloe House retains its historic nineteenth-century character through its simple three-bay symmetry and brick exterior
Area used as staging area for White House construction
St. John’s Church, first building adjacent to square, constructed
Decatur House constructed; Square graded and planted with trees
Richard Cutts builds future Dolley Madison House and Benjamin O. Tayloe constructs house
Square named in honor of Marquis de Lafayette of France
Lafayette Square landscaped in accord with Alexander Jackson Downing designs
Andrew Jackson sculpture, executed by Clark Mills, unveiled
Construction of much of Jackson Place block
Mary Chase Morris, last resident of Jackson Place, dies and O’Toole House becomes office space
Jacqueline Kennedy successfully lobbies to retain historic character of Lafayette Square
Historic houses rehabilitated and compatible new buildings constructed
Park and surrounding historic buildings designated a National Historic Landmark
Northwest Washington, DC, bordered by H Street, Madison Place, Pennsylvania Avenue and Jackson Place
National Historic Landmark
Andrew Jackson Downing
Historic Rowhouse Construction Dates:
Federal and Italianate
Brick, sandstone, and stucco
Park landscaped with picturesque pathways, fountains, and five heroic statues
Historic brick rowhouses with heavy door and window surrounds and bracketed cornices
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