Many of the tourists who come to this area believe that the White House is the only site with history here. However, there is far more history than they think. It was at Webster's home that Secretary of State Daniel Webster and "The Great Compromiser" Henry Clay struggled to avert the Civil War, by hammering out the Compromise of 1850. It was also in Blair House, that Robert E. Lee was offered, and refused, the command of the Union Army. Plenty of murders were committed and attempted here, such as the ones in Lafayette Park and Rodgers House. Also, more than a thousand treaties were signed here, in the Old Executive Office Building, whose lawn President Taft's pet cow also once grazed on.
As planned by Pierre L'Enfant, this was one of the first areas of Washington to be developed for use as the nation's capital. Several of the city's oldest remaining public buildings can be found within a few blocks of each other in this powerful neighborhood. A Scottish gentleman under then name of Favid Burnes, originally owned the land in this area. At first, Burnes was reluctant to give up his hand, but finally agreed to sell - after much haggling and a few implied threats from the government. Legend has it that President Washington even visited Burnes at his home and emerged several hours later, holding the deed to the land upon which many of Washington's most important buildings and monuments would someday be built.
Work on the White House started 1792, while the land between it and the planned Capitol groups was still a muddy expanse of woods and fields. Pennsylvania Avenue, as designed by L'Enfant, was to run in a diagonal line between the White House and the U.S. Capitol. However, his master plan was detoured when the Treasury Building was constructed next door to the White House, forcing Pennsylvania Avenue into a right angle around the building before continuing its path to the Capitol.
The White House dominates this section of town, as it does the entire city. In front and behind the mansion are two major parks - Lafayette Park to the north and the Ellipse to the south. The Ellipse has managed to retain its intended role as the "backyard" of the White House, acting as a grass buffer between the White House and the chaotic doings of the Mall and its galleries and museums. Lafayette Park, however, has led a far different existence. Its usages have ranged from being racetrack to campground. Also, it has been the home of several protest rallies.
When British forces burned the city in 1814, this area was one of the hardest hit. After winning the Battle of Bladensburg, Admiral George Cockburn and his troops marched into Washington ready to have a good time. They burned the Capitol, using the Library of Congress books as kindling. Then they marched up Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House. They dined on the victuals set out earlier by Dolley Madison in preparation for a dinner party, and after having their fill, lit a torch to the White House.
In 1901, Congress appointed the McMillan Commission to develop a solution to the planning problems of the city, which had long-since been derailed from L'Efant's original vision. This committee recommended the homogenization of city architecture into a single Beaux-Arts style. Although this redevelopment doomed a number of Victorian buildings in Washington, the commission only saw its dream realized in one building near the White House: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, completed in 1926. Depression and war managed to keep most of the planned redevelopment of the area at bay until the city had begun to cherish the older architecture that was slated for destruction.
Nevertheless, the progress of normal development did take its toll on the area. The old mansions and townhouses that one lined K street in new downtown have given way to glass box buildings. Modern office buildings also threatened to encroach some of the most historic houses around Lafayette Square. Luckily, in 1963, President John F. Kennedy inaugurated a preservation program that protected the older homes and buildings in the area. Through his efforts, many of the homes of Madison Place were preserved.
The Old Executive Office Building
The tour will begin at the Old Executive Office Building and then circle clockwise around the White House, hitting sites to the west, north, and east side of Lafayette Park. The next stops will be at the Treasury Department and at Lafayette Park itself. The tour continues to the Ellipse, and then ends at most important building in the area, the White House.
Here is a full listing of stops on the tour, in the order traversed. Feel free to jump ahead to places which interest you the most.
The Old Executive Office Building
Sites on the West side of Lafayette Park
Sites on the North side of Lafayette Park
Sites on the East side of Lafayette Park