Lafayette Square, Washington, DC

Lafayette Park and the blocks that surround it, known as Lafayette Square, feature prominently in American history. Not surprising for a place located across the street from the White House. Nor one that housed many of Washington DC’s political elite. The area is also notable for the high concentration of historic buildings under GSA’s stewardship. The seven-acre park contains green space and public art. It is lined by nineteenth-century row-houses, and bordered by Pennsylvania Avenue to the south, Jackson Place to the west, and Madison Place to the east; H Street borders it to the north.

Aerial shot of Lafayette Park

Originally known as “President’s Park,” the land served as a construction staging area for the White House in 1800. But before it became a park and an historic landmark, the land served at various points as a racetrack, a graveyard, a zoo, a slave market, an encampment for soldiers during the War of 1812, and the site of many political protests and celebrations. (Lafayette Park continues to serve as a gathering place for public events.) The land  was fenced during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency (which ran from 1801 to 1809). The land was then made part of the executive mansion grounds.

The park itself is named for the Marquis de Lafayette, the French military leader whose involvement was crucial in securing victory in the American Revolutionary War. Many of the structures surrounding Lafayette Park are now owned and or maintained by GSA. This includes Blair House (President’s Guest House), Dolley Madison’s House, Trowbridge House, the Cosmos Club (which includes the Benjamin Ogle Tayloe House, and the Cornelia Knower Marcy House).

History

Although now an elegantly designed park, Lafayette Square had humble beginnings. During the 1700s, it was a plot of land used and reused as a family graveyard, a racetrack, a zoo, an apple orchard, and a slave market

This changed when the land was purchased as part of the White House grounds. Crews building the original White House used it for construction staging, a purpose for which it was used again, after the White House was torched by the British during the War of 1812.

In the years immediately following the Revolutionary War, the grounds were cleared, graded, and planted with trees. Architect Charles Bullfinch devised the plan of what was called "the President's Park," a nod to its adjacency to the White House.

Map of White House Neighborhood circa 1855.
Isometrical view of the Presidents House, the surrounding public buildings, and private residences. This 1857 map anticipates the appearance of new, expanded government buildings, some never realized, and omits other landmarks such as the Andrew Jackson statue in Lafayette Park, which first appeared in the park in 1853. Credit: Library of Congress.

President Thomas Jefferson personally involved himself in the development of the President’s Park; he decided to erect 12-foot stone wall fencing on the south border and rail fencing on the other three. He also saw to the landscaping of the executive mansion grounds. In 1803, Jefferson ordered Pennsylvania Avenue to cut through President’s Park forming two sections.

Two of the earliest buildings constructed near the Park were St. John’s Church, in 1815, and Commodore Stephen Decatur and his wife Susan’s home, in 1818. Benjamin H. Latrobe, American’s first professional architect and engineer, designed both buildings. The Decatur House, as it became known, was the first private residence in the White House neighborhood. Decatur did not long enjoy his new home; within fourteen months of moving in, he was killed in a duel on March 22, 1820. Afterwards, Susan Decatur moved out of the house and rented it to a succession of Secretaries of State, including Henry Clay, whose slave, Charlotte Dupuy, sued him for her freedom while living in the house. Decatur House remains one of very few examples that remain of slave quarters in an urban area, and the only one we know of that is evidence that African Americans were held in bondage in sight of the White House.

Over the next fifty years, the Square became one of the city’s most fashionable and prominent neighborhoods. Its location near the White House attracted numerous residents of note, including members of the Cabinet, Congress, and the diplomatic corps. The area remained a highly desirable residential district into the twentieth century.

Last Reviewed 2016-11-03