1601 Pennsylvania Avenue
Park Today | Park History

Washington Evening Star

April 19, 1913

Lafayette Square

by James Croggon

When President Adams and the government officials moved here in 1800, the surroundings of the President's house were in an unfinished, untidy condition, and, indeed, the interior of the house was in the same plight, the east room of which was used by the household as a washing room on wash days. Looking North, what is now the beautiful Lafayette Square, in the center of which is the statue of Jackson, was a plain unsightly area, covered with wild growth. The square had not then been leveled and about it were few habitations. This square, indeed, came near being a semi-circle for L'Enfant in his first plan of Washington, depicting the streets and squares in the neighborhood, included a semicircle which had its base ont he present Avenue, circling around to the south side of H street. This arrangement, however, did not stantd, although the original proprietor, Samuel Davidson, strenuously objected to the adoption of the changes suggested by Ellicott, which became effective in the plan, approved by Washington.

This space now bounded by Madison place onthe east and Jackson place onthe west, south of H street, laid long in the plan before designated by no other than Jefferson as President Square and since by authorities called Lafayette Square int he appropriation bills.

Was Once a Graveyard.

Christian Hines, in his reminiscences, refers to graves being in the southwest corner of the square about 1800, and an old resident states that in his boyhood, about 1840, there were evidences of a graveyard found in the northeast part - skulls, bones etc., and common report was that it had been the burial place for slaves and in the preceeding century, and part of a pear orchard encroached the northern border. There had been erected a fence of three narrow planks prior to 1834 when $1,000 was appropriated to repair it and plant trees. At each corner of the square a stile prevented the intrusion of horses and cattle, and the paths made were well worn, the center especially, by the department people. Down to 1850 it was a playground for the boys, and not infrequently were snakes found there. When Gen. Taylor occupied the white house, 1849-18?? his war horse, Old Whitey, often browsed there as well as the cows of a cabinet officer.

Improvements on Square.

In the early part of the century the only improvement boardering the square was a large house on the northwest corner of Vermont avenue and H street, erected for Mrs. Anne Cazanave, the daughter of Notley Young, who resided there a few years after the death of her husband, about 1796, in 1816 St. John's Episcopal Church was erected on its present site, and on the west side of the square the house in which Commodore Decatur died, and a house south was erected about 1819 by Dr. Ewell, the satter establishing a drug store there, but there were distances between the habitations. On the east side of the square were the residences first built by B. Olge Taylor and Richard Cutts, the Madison house being erected on the corner of H street, in which Mrs. Madison lived for a time.

Built next to the Cosmos Club on the south is the house formerly occupied by William Windom at one time Secretary of the Treasury. Adjoining it is the house in which Robert G. Ingersoll once lived, and below the latter comes the old home of Admiral Paulding, whose father, John Paulding, captured Major Andre during the American Revolution. Former Senator Don Cameron bought the house and lived there while he was Senator, since which time the house has been put down in guide books as the Cameron House. Vice President Hobart is its present occupant. Separated from the Cameron house by a small alley is the modern- built Lafayette Square Opera House, which stands out in bold contrast to the historic old house which until several years ago stood upon the same spot.

In that old mansion, known as the Seward and Blaine mansions at different periods of its history, lived such men as Calhoun, Seward, and Blaine. It was the most famous house on the whole square and the only structure of the historic thirty-one to disappear before the advance of modern civilization. Occupied at one time as what would now be styled a "swell boarding house." the old structure sheltered such "boarders" as John C. Calhoun, when he was Secretary of War under Jackson and when Vice President, and by Henry Clay when he was Secretary of State. The house next became the property of the old Washington Club, celebrated as being the rendezvous of the gay and rich young men of the Capital in former times. General Daniel Sickels and his rival, Barton-Key, were frequently seen at the club, and the tragedy which followed the crossing of their threads of life occurred in front of its very windows. William H. Seward nect occupied the house, and it was there he narrowly escaped assassination one April night at the hands of Payne, who was in the Booth conspiracy. The house was lastly occupied by James G. Blaine, as Secretary of State, and it was there that he died.

Present Distinguished Occupants.

Ranged opposite Lafayette Square on the west side extending southward from the Decatur mansion is still another row of residences with places in history. They complete the list of houses on the square. Beginning with the William L. Scott home, next to the Decatur house, they ar in the order named the C.C. Glover, George F. Appleby, Major General Parke, Washington McLean, James Blair, Senator Gorman, Admiral Olden, Mrs. Green, Col. W. H. Philip, and Peter Parker houses. The last named, opposite the State, War, and Navy Building was occupied by Peter Parker, Minister to China, and is now used as the headquarters of the Bureau of American Republics. The McLean House in the centre of the square was the home of Vice President Schuyler Colfax, and others. Major Henry R. Rathbone, who was with President Lincoln when the latter was shot at the Old Ford's Theatre on Tenth Street, lived in this row of houses.

April 19, 1913

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