One of the key sights in Washington, D.C. is the White House. That symbol of the U.S. Presidency is indeed a big draw even if it is so inaccessible to most of us, the people. One can be forgiven for losing sight of what is around the White House as the draw is too strong. However, the square just across from its north side is an interesting place to explore. The street that separates it from the White House’s north lawn used to allow for cars as recently as the late 1990s. However, it is now pedestrian only which is quite alright with me – that allows tourists being absent-minded while taking photos without the risk of being hit by a car.
Enter, stage north, Lafayette Square
The square is known as Lafayette Square and is bounded by Madison Place and Jackson Place (on the east and west sides, respectively) and by Pennsylvania Ave. and H. St. (on the south and north sides, respectively). I used to work a block down from it and enjoyed eating my lunch there a few times.
The buildings around the square were almost lost had it not been for some key people intervening, among them the First Lady at the time, Jacqueline Kennedy. The federal government had bought the land and was planning to demolish all the beautiful buildings around the square to build, guess what, likely-monstrous government buildings. As a lover of history and architecture, I am so thankful these buildings were preserved even if other work was done to adapt and “blend” them with the new buildings they were to connect to. Their existence helps capture how the areas near the White House likely looked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Needless to say, these buildings are mercifully protected now.
Jackson Place – on the western end of Lafayette Square
The buildings on the western side are owned mostly by White House for different purposes such as a place for former Presidents to stay when they visit. But they have incredible pedigrees with past important and famous folks owning or visiting these places. Their style is quite distinct from those across the square in Madison Place.
Decatur House on Jackson Place
The Decatur House on the corner of Jackson Place and H Street does deserve special mention. While it looks pretty “blah” from the outside, it is one of the oldest surviving homes in Washington, D.C. having been built in 1818.
It was built for a naval hero named Stephen Decatur (fought naval wars in North Africa, fought in the War of 1812, and others) but was subsequently home to other illustrious Americans like Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, and others. The structure behind it housed the slaves some owners had. It is said to be one of the few examples of slave quarters in an urban area that remains.
Though I worked literally a short block away, I never visited it – crazy, huh?
Madison Place – on the eastern end of Lafayette Square
The buildings along Madison Place have more charming façades than those on Jackson Place. These buildings were adapted to fit it with the new National Courts Building (the big red monster behind them in the photo). Actually the National Courts Building was designed to not take attention away from the old buildings by being built tall and just pretty much red bricks. I have to agree that it does meet that objective as it helps frame them.
The one on the corner with H Street, the Cutts-Madison mansion, was First Lady’s Dolley Madison’s residence until she died in 1849. The house was built in 1819 and it has been changed by later owners (for instance, the front door used to face Madison Place but it was switched to H St. in the mid 1800s).
Other buildings on this street include the Cosmos Club Building and the Benjamin Ogle Tayloe House. The latter was built in the 1820s back when this area was still mainly trees and shrubs. It almost became the official residence of the Vice President of the U.S. And for three years in the late 1950 and early 1960s, it was the headquarters of NASA. Who knew.
H Street – the northern side of Lafayette Square
This side of the street, currently housing the U. S. Chamber of Commerce (built in the 1920s, government style) and the Hay-Adams Hotel, used to have houses as Madison Place and Jackson Place have. Unfortunately those disappeared much earlier in the 20th century when, perhaps, people were not as inclined to think about heritage preservation. Lost in that shuffle where the Corcoran House and the Hay-Adams Houses.
The good news on the northern side is that the “Church of Presidents,” St. John’s Episcopal Church, is still there. It is nicknamed so since every President since Madison has attended service there, even if not regularly. The church was built in 1816 and it is a gem.
So next time you are in D.C. gawking at the White House, take a moment to stroll around Lafayette Square and take a peek at these buildings that take us back in the capital’s history.
D.C. has plenty of hotels but I was fortunate to stay at one very close to the square: the aptly named Sofitel Lafayette. It is just a block away on H St. and it is perfect as a base to visit the square and many other places in D.C. Only the Hay-Adams Hotel is closer to the Square but the price difference is huge! I sampled a couple of the specialty cocktails at Le Bar, where they have an incredible diversity of specialty cocktails – and a very nice wine list too!
On the day of departure, I splurged and got an incredible breakfast of smoked salmon pair with a café au lait, and a side of a pain au chocolat That was a great way to wrap up my visit to one of my favorite cities in the world!
Have you visited D.C. and explored Lafayette Square? Are there similar places in your hometown that help portray its history?