April 21, 1924
HISTORY OF LAFAYETTE SQUARESketches of Lives of Prominent Men Living on Border
Outlined by Major Gist Blair
of Plot Given
Before Historical Society.
History of Lafayette square, the early buildings surrounding it
and sketches of many persons who played prominent parts in the
history of the nation while dwelling on the border of that
historic landmark in front of the White House, were outlined by
Maj. Gist Blair before the Columbia Historical Society in the
Cosmos Club last night.
This historic square of Washington, which was named after
the famous French general after his visit to this city in 1824,
was a part of patents issued to John Pearce, September 23, 1685,
when he obtained two tracts of land of 500 acres in that
vicinity, Maj. Blair explained.
From the date of the Pearce patents to the time when the
Commissioners, appointed to establish the city, entered into
their agreement with the proprietors, the land descended through
several generations of that family and was owned by them when
President Washington on February 3, 1791, wrote William Dearkins,
Jr. and Benjamin Stoddart asking them to assist him in acquiring
land "for the purpose of the town." The plot of ground, which
included Lafayette Square, was then owned by Edward Pearce.
Mr. Pearce, the speaker continued, was a successful farmer
and at that time owned a farmhouse at the northeast corner of the
square. The graves of the Pearce family were on the north side
of Pennsylvania Avenue opposite the President's house, and an
apple orchard nearly covered the square.
Was President's Square
The square first became known as President's square and up
to the year 1800 graves of the Pearce family remained in the
square undisturbed and surrounded by a small wooden fence, he
said. Quoting from "Recollections of Christian Hines," he said
that at the time of the removal of the graves "all that was found
were a few bones, some black dust and a piece of comb."
Following the establishment of "President's Square," there
were no houses of buildings on its borders. "Buildings in the
White House Grounds," he said, "were the first to be erected
along the square's boundary lines."
"The second house to be built on the square was the old
Decatur house, designed by Latrobe, the architect for the
Capitol, and was erected by Commodore Stephen Decatur from prize
money won in the wars with the pirates of Tripoli." "The house
was erected in 1819," he said.
Square Leveled and Fenced.
In 1826, the square was leveled and fenced in with a paling
fence. This wooden fence was replaced by an iron one in 1853,
when the statue to Gen. Jackson was erected." continued Maj.
In 1858 the streets on the east and west sides of the square
were named by the city council Madison place and Jackson place.
Before this time they were called Connecticut avenue, 16 1/2 or
15 1/2, according to the whim of the people," he said.
Previous to that time, in 1845, Lafayette Square was the
lobby of the White House, and Congress proposed to use the land
for five residences for the members of the President's cabinet.
Lafayette Square had been layed off in walks, completely inclosed
and had a pavement put around it, and in 1833 the grounds were
further improved and a drainage system installed. The square was
more extensively improved in 1874.
Telling of the early buildings erected along the square, he
recalled the building of the St. John's Church, which was ready
for occupancy in 1816. The Rev. Dr. Wilmer of Alexandria, Va.,
was its first pastor. He told of many historic events in
connection with this ancient landmark and place of worship.
Among the attendants at this church have been Presidents Madison,
Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Taylor,
Fillmore, Buchanan and Arthur.
The large brownstone building facing the square on H street
between the St. John's Church and the newly erected United States
Chamber of Commerce building, was build by Matthew St. Clair
Clark, clerk of the House of Representatives in 1822, he said.
This house was at one time the home of Joseph Gale, editor of the
National Intelligencer, a newspaper of the day, and was later
resided in by Lord Ashburton, when he negotiated a treaty with
Daniel Webster, Secretary of State.
At this point Mr. Blair outlined the many things that had
been done to bring about pan-American tranquility by those who
had resided on the borders of the square. One the northwest
corner of 16th and H streets was the home of John Hay, private
secretary to President Lincoln. Next to the house built by Hay
was the home of Henry Adams. Next to the Adams house stood an
old colonial residence built by Thomas Corcoran, brother of W.W.
Corcoran. He died before the house was completed. The house was
bought by Thomas Ritchie, editor and government printer under
President Polk. Later Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy under
President Lincoln, resided there.
The house was destroyed to make room for the Chamber of
Commerce building. Another house, nearby, long known as the
Corcoran House, was occupied by the banker and philanthropist,
Further Historic Detail
Giving further historic detail about the houses bordering on
this famous square, he told of No. 22 Jackson place, which was
the home of William L. Marcy, Secretary of War under President
Polk. The house later was occupied by many prominent personages,
including President Roosevelt, who lived there in 1902 while the
White House was being remodeled.
He said No. 20 Jackson place was for many years the home of
Charles C. Glover, president of the Riggs National Bank; No. 18
Jackson place was the home of William J. Murtagh, founder of the
National Republican in 1860.
No. 16 Jackson place was built and resided in by Gen. J.G.
Parke of the United States Army, and No.14 Jackson place was
originally built by Dr. Ewell, a naval surgeon and subsequently
occupied by three secretaries of the Navy, Smith Thompson, Samuel
Southard and Levi Woodbury, he said.
No. 12 Jackson place was built by James Blair; No. 10 was
occupied in turn by Senator Arthur P. Gorman of Maryland, Senator
Dolf of Oregon and Nicholas L. Anderson, famous persons of the
When Lincoln Was Shot.
Maj. Blair also recounted the history of No. 8 Jackson place
which was occupied by Col. Henry R. Rathbone, who attended Ford's
Theater with Lincoln the night that the President was shot.
Where the Treasury annex now stands, on the east side of the
square, was a house erected in 1836 by Dr. Thomas Bunnell, city
postmaster, he said. After Mr. Gunnell's death, Samuel D.
Hubbare, Postmaster General under President Filmore, resided
there. A house adjoining on the north side was built by
Commodore John Rodgers of the United States NAvy in 1831. The
house was later rented to Roger B. Taney, Secretary of the
Treasury under President Jackson, and later to others famous in
the nation's history. The house passed into the hands of William
R. Seward, Secretary of State under President Lincoln.
The Belasco Theater now occupies this historic spot.
Lafayette Square Statues
He described the statues in Lafayette Square. He told of
their history unveiling, and of events connected with them. The
principal statue in the square, he said, is the one to Andrew
Jackson, general and President.
In conclusion he said: "Lafayette Square is a historical
monument. It represents a great past, it contains a great hope
for the future. Maj. Blair, who himself lives near the square is
the author of the "History of Silver Spring" and other historical
Exhibited at the meeting were the kind of hat worn by Dolly
Madison, and many copies of old Washington newspapers. Allen C.
Clark, president of the society presided.
Describes Madison House
The residence of Dolly Madison, now the Cosmos Club, was
described after its occupancy by former President and Mrs.
Madison. Recalling that he was standing on a platform
practically on the spot on which many of the great social events
of that day were held, he told of the many great statesmen that
had gathered in the Madison home, and the prominent position that
Mrs. Madison occupied in the social life of this city. After
leaving the White House, Mrs. Madison resided in the home there
most of the time until here death in 1840.