Monday, January 14, 2019

The most elegant house in Washington: The Octagon House

I've begun a love affair: with a house.  While I have lived in Washington now for nearly 17 years I had never visited the Octagon House despite always hearing about it from friends. Oh I'll visit someday was my thought. Well one rainy Saturday this past fall I visited and fell in love.
Not only is the house open for free to the public, you typically have it to yourself to explore at your own pace (which I love). I promptly set up a later tour for our Mid-Atlantic branch of the ICAA with the help of a friend.
While the crisp details are certainly elegant, the true beauty lies in the plan (as always, click the image to see in more detail). While the site was rural AND waterfront when the house was built in 1799, early in Washington's history, the house is exceedingly urban. The architect, William Thornton, must have foreseen the city that would grow surrounding the house based on L'Enfant's plan.
Colonel John Tayloe III had the house built on the advice of his friend George Washington as his winter in-town residence and it remained as his families primary residence until 1855 at the death of his wife. The neighborhood was no longer fashionable and his children rented the house out; first as a girl's school, then to the Federal government as Naval offices, until it finally was a tenement. In 1898 the AIA stepped in (American Institute of Architects) to rent the house as their headquarters and in 1902 purchased the property. It is still owned and lovingly cared for by the AIA.
Let's step into the foyer shall we? All of the paint colors were matched to their 1810 appearance with help from Benjamin Moore and these colors are all available for purchase.  The entry hall is 'Daytona Peach #079' for example. 
The most striking feature of the round entry are a pair of English stoves flanking entry into the stairhall which feature neoclassic urns.
 Notice how even the doors match the curve of the walls -a lovely detail.
While we so often think of checkerboard floor tiles having to precisely match, the variation in the darker squares, made up of different marbles, is really soft and lovely.
The living room features the original moldings and Coade stone fireplace although the chandelier dates to the 1930s. The mantel was painted because when it arrived on site because the top shelf was missing. It was replaced in wood to match the stone mantel below. The wall colors in this room are not accurate as originally the room held wallpaper, although no one knows what it looked like!
The mirrors flanking the fireplace were original to the family and are original to the house. All of the other furnishings throughout the house are period but not original to the Tayloe family.
The central stairhall stands between the living and dining rooms (see plans above) but more on this later.
On the opposite side of the stairhall is the dining room. The lovely thing about the orientation of the house is that all rooms are bathed in natural light throughout the day.
The dining room also features an original Coade stone mantel. The green paint color is original to 1810 and is BM #480 Lily Pad, and #AF-475 Lush. 
The brass hearth fenders are kept beautifully polished. All of the brasses would have been regularly polished to reflect the candlelight.
Stepping back into the stairhall notice the ivory "mortgage button" in the elegant newel. Of course the myth of this decorative feature is more interesting than actuality. There was no mortgage on this house when it was built!
Heading up to the family quarters on the 2nd floor notice the curved walls continue. I love the sunny yellow paint colors - BM #319 Dalila.
This rather elegant jib door leads to one of many closets. This closet probably held the beds of the slaves who slept outside the doorways of the master bedroom.
The round room on top of the entry is the main family sitting room known as the Treaty Room. After the war of 1812 when the White House was burned by the British (in 1814), the Octagon House briefly served as the president's residence for President Madison and his wife Dolly.  It was in this room that the president ratified the Treaty of Ghent which ended the war. The original table sits in the entry foyer of the house while this exact replica lets you take a closer look.
I love the simple wood mantels here on the 2nd floor.
Looking towards the rear you can see the stair going up to the 3rd floor where the children's bedrooms were (the Tayloe's had 15 children!) as well as an odd extension to a closet so that the stair and house appeared taller than they actually are: Sneaky!
However the best part of these houses in my opinion are the behind the scenes spaces.  Adjacent to the elegant main stair is a rather clever triangular staircase that allows for more discreet access throughout the house and entry into the basement servants quarters.
The basement is actually quite bright with tall ceilings and large windows thanks to the service moat surrounding the house.
The central hall in the basement once held a round well for drinking and washing - you can see where it was in the round pattern in the brick. This area of Washington has always been marshy and the basement was always damp and battling water.  The AIA undertook massive measures a few years ago to help prevent moisture from rising through the house and this floor was relaid.
As part of this work the original plaster had fallen off the brick bearing walls which absorbed water from the earth.  While the brick dries out (over a few years) they are leaving the brick and stone exposed before re-plastering to its original appearance. That is a bread oven to the right of the main cooking fireplace and an early brick coal range to the left.
I love the brick wine storage shelves seen above. Similar arched brick shelves also exist at Homewood House in Baltimore of the same date which we toured this fall with the ICAA.
Returning outside you can see the brick walls which surround the service yard.  The yard now contains the main AIA building finished in 1973 which surrounds, but respects by distance, the Octagon House. Notice the wall and chimney with oddly no windows (this is the wall of the dining room) making the house feel more like a townhouse; Possibly for future expansion that never occurred?  I find it really surprising that while the city developed this property wasn't sold for development of townhouses adjoining the main house which would have fit nicely against these blank walls.
I highly encourage everyone to visit the Octagon House museum, open to the public free of charge Thursday through Saturday from 1-4, and otherwise by appointment.  Group visits can be arranged, refer to their website here https://architectsfoundation.org/octagon-museum.
All photos my own with the exception of the first shot by Robert Tarasovich. Plans and drawings for HABS on wikicommons.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Drawing Architecture - perfect Christmas gift!

Just in time for the Christmas shopping season Phaidon has released a book perfect for the architecture lover on your list, Drawing Architecture by Helen Thomas.  Above is a recent rendering by Grafton Architects done with computer software in 2013. Unlike most computer renderings, notice how soft and beautiful it is.  This transforms what is ordinarily a cold lifeless drawing into an art form; I'd hang this on my wall!
Showcasing over 250 drawings by architects from Bernini to Frank Gehry and Michelangelo to Renzo Piano, the book highlights how styles have changed but the way architecture is represented has mostly stayed the same.  Above is a sketch completed by set designer Ferdinando Galli da Bibiena in 1732 of a piece of scenery for the baroque stage. Notice the clever way the elevation and plan are represented together.
Lastly I wanted to share a rendering from 1939 by architect  Ernesto Bruno la Padula of one of my favorite buildings in Rome, the Palace of Italian Civilization. While this was completed after the building was complete, these types of renderings are instrumental in working with clients.
Author Helen Thomas is a trained architect and writer who works at the London V&A museum in London that I just had the pleasure of visiting (lucky her!). Definitely add this book to your shopping list, perfect for any lover of architecture or even just drawings.
All images courtesy of Phaidon

Monday, October 22, 2018

Interior Landmarks - Treasures of New York

 Everyone is familiar with the many landmarks of New York City, but thanks to Judith Gura and Kate Wood (courtesy of the Monacelli Press) we are all about to become familiar with the landmarked INTERIORS of the city. 
Since 1965 the New York City Landmarks Law has been protecting significant spaces across the city ranging from classical architecture to more unexpected masterpieces of the modern era.
This book includes 120 landmarks and their locations which can be used as an architectural tour guide of the city as most spaces are open to the public.
The projects range from the expected such as the Metropolitan Museum by Richard Morris Hunt seen below -
 To the lesser known such as the Loews Paradise Theater in the Bronx by John Eberson.
The re-release of this book includes updated information with new additions so that you can explore these landmarks for yourself.
I think a copy of this book is a must-have guide to the city with more interesting venues than the typical tourist guidebook but can also be used for more serious research. In a city that is constantly changing the struggle to preserve our architectural heritage is in more need of support than ever! Happy Reading!
All images courtesy of Larry Lederman and The Monacelli press

Monday, October 15, 2018

Private Classical Baltimore home tour this weekend!

This upcoming weekend I'm helping to host a home tour in Baltimore for our local chapter of the ICAA which I've decided to name Private Classical Baltimore.  Read here for a little information about this tour which I'm so excited for!
The tour starts at the Homewood Mansion on Johns Hopkins University campus.  Built and designed by Charles Carroll Jr. for his family in 1801, the house has a Palladian 5-part plan. While planned and massed in the Georgian style of the time, it uses Federal-style detailing reflecting the influences of Robert Adam. The flatter details seen here distinguish the federal style from the English Georgian style and this is considered one of the best federal examples in the country.  Lunch will be served as part of the tour in the garden, weather permitting.
After lunch the tour will progress to 2 beautiful historic houses in the Homeland neighborhood. The stone house seen here was designed by Palmer & Lamdin in 1928. They were the preeminent residential architects in Baltimore between the wars.  Edward Palmer was an 1899 graduated of Johns Hopkins and in the 1903 class of the University of Pennsylvania school of architecture.  In 1920  William Lamdin joined his office after leaving the firm of Wyatt & Nolting. Lamdin had graduated from Cornell in 1913. 
This brick beauty above was designed by Laurence Hall Fowler in 1930. Fowler graduated from both Johns Hopkins and Columbia before leaving for Paris in 1904 to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  After returning to Baltimore he briefly worked at Wyatt & Nolting before striking out on his own in 1906.  Upon returning in 1945 he left his extensive architectural library of over 450 books plus his entire work's archives to Johns Hopkins.  
Located in Guilford the next house on the tour was designed by John Russell Pope in 1916, known as Charlcote. Designed for James Swan Frick the brick house has cypress wood trim painted to resemble stone on the exterior (image top of post).  The interior has been beautifully decorated by Mona Hajj and has been published multiple times.  The renovation work has been done over the years by a sponsor of the tour, Winchester Construction.
The last stop on the tour will be at an apartment in the historic Warrington Apartments decorated by Mona Hajj and renovated by Winchester where cocktails will be served following the tour.  I hope to see many of you at this delicious tour of Private Classical Baltimore (tickets may be purchased HERE).

Monday, October 1, 2018

Dior and his Decorators - a must have for any design library!

To this day Christian Dior's name is associated with all that is elegant despite his passing 61 years ago. The post-war period in which he was most active is personally one of my favorite times to study as the output of the western world's artists was at a creative peak (similarly the same could be said of the inter-war period).
Historian Maureen Footer has just released the book I have always wanted to read and it does not disappoint, Dior and his Decorators: Victor Grandpierre, Georges Geffroy, and the New Look.  While Dior may be a household name the artists working behind him, inspiring him, and sometimes providing him with his eponymous look aren't as well known.
 As a reader of this blog you are probably already familiar with Ms Footer's previous book, George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic (also a must have!), and this book picks up where that left off by delving into the most chic interiors of the 20th century.
On a side note, have you seen Ms. Footer's apartment recently published in Veranda Magazine September / October 2018 issue?  One of my favorite spaces to see published lately, Veranda is killing it; resubscribe one and all!
The book explores Dior's relationship with Victor Grandpierre and Georges Geffroy.  These two designers created a sophisticated Parisian style for the mid-century which was not modern but rather an updated neoclassical French style based on the 18th century. Roots in this work can be seen in the most sought-after designers today such as Michael Smith.
Dior had these gentleman design not only his own homes but also his shops, advertising, packaging, and even his logo!  We can credit Grandpierre with developing 'Dior grey' used with pale pink accents, white mouldings, and Louis XVI style furniture.
The book also explores the work of these designers elsewhere and in their own Paris apartments - not to be missed!
One will recognize the bold-faced names that float through the book and leave you wanting more- Yves Saint Laurent, Gloria Guinness, Daisy Fellowes, the Baron de Rede and even Maria Callas - perhaps a 2nd volume? I'm anxiously awaiting Footer's next work.
While this fascinating book is chock full of information it reads conversationally and not like a boring textbook. You'll definitely want to spend time pouring through this book and not just look at the pictures unlike some recent 'design books'. This one is a keeper, bravo Maureen Footer and the Vendome Press!
Images in this post are courtesy of Vendome Press, not my own, and are not to be used without permission.