Charming and Historical Lafayette Square in D.C.

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.

Washington, DC, Lafayette Square, Andrew Jackson, park, White House, photo, Olympus

The statue at the center of Lafayette Square is NOT Lafayette but, instead, Andrew Jackson

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.

Jackson Place, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, history, architecture, Olympus

The buildings at Jackson Place

Jackson Place, Madison Place, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, White House, Olympus

Looking across Lafayette Square from Jackson Place towards Madison Place (National Courts is the big red building)

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.

Decatur House, Washington D.C., DC, Lafayette Square, Jackson Place, architecture, history, Van Buren

Decatur House on the corner of H St. and Jackson Place

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).

Washington D.C., DC, Cutts-Madison mansion, Lafayette Square, architecture, history, Samsung

Dolley Madison’s home with the National Courts Building behind it. To its right, the Cosmos Club Building.

Other buildings on this street include the Cosmos Club Building and the Benjamin Ogle Tayloe HouseThe 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.

Chamber of Commerce, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, Olympus

The northern side of Lafayette Square

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.

St. John Episcopal Church, Church of Presidents, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, history, architecture

St. John’s is a neat reminder of the history of the U.S. capital

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!

Le Bar, Sofitel Lafayette, DC, hotel, bar

Le Bar offers nice spaces to enjoy its offerings

Sofitel, France, hotel, accommodation, Church of Presidents, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, architecture, Olympus

The entrance to the Sofitel

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 🙂smoked salmon, pain au chocolat, breakfast, SofitelThat 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? 

Comments

  1. thinking about going with the family this summer. Thanks for the info. PJ

  2. DC is one of my favorite cities, I love returning to explore all the little neighborhoods.My favorite areas are Dupont Circle and Georgetown.
    Brianna recently posted..Along the Danube on 2 wheels: cycling through Austria’s Wachau ValleyMy Profile

  3. Good reminder that sometimes we can’t be so focused on the main monuments that we forget all the other treasures around… Thanks for introducing us to Lafayette Square.
    Sand In My Suitcase recently posted..Mexico’s Colonial Towns a Necklace of GemsMy Profile

Speak Your Mind

*

CommentLuv badge

%d bloggers like this: