The Individuals and Events That Form the History of Madison Place

The first, and probably the most important, personality in this overview of the people and events, which makes Madison Place on Lafayette Square in Washington, DC such an important part of the history of our country, is James Madison. The 4th President of the United States, a Secretary of State, a respondent in the most famous case decided by the Supreme Court, and the author of the Federalist Papers, this man had as much to do with the placement of the national capital as anyone who was a member of the First Congress who made the decision.

In 1790, in New York City, this Congress had to choose a permanent site for a national capital as well as a temporary capital. The choices for the latter site were New York City and Philadelphia; the permanent capital was to be either on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania or on the Potomac River near the town of Georgetown on the Maryland side and Alexandria on the Virginia side. The Senate was the first to act and after heated discussion voted 14 to 12 to place the permanent capital on the Potomac and make Philadelphia the temporary capital for 10 years while the new capital was being built. The House was deadlocked on whether the temporary site should be New York or Philadelphia and was examining several sites including the Potomac and Delaware Rivers. Through the efforts of Madison the Virginia and other representatives of the southern states were strongly for the Potomac site but other help was needed. By convincing the Pennsylvania delegation that the Senate bill naming the Potomac-Philadelphia combination was the best solution, Madison and his followers were able to withstand a late attempt to substitute Baltimore for the Potomac site and by a vote of 32-29 voted to make the new permanent capital along the Potomac River at a specific site to be selected by the new President George Washington. Forty years later, Madison was to be the owner of property on the most famous Square in American history.

So in 1790 the temporary capital was moved from New York City to Philadelphia and when Washington decided that all the government buildings would be constructed on the Maryland side of the Potomac, the purchase of the land to build the capital began. The first site to be selected was for the President's House and the surrounding area, which was on land owned by Davey Burnes. He was persuaded to sell part of his large holdings to the city proprietors who in turn designated a major portion for the home of the President and then sold lots to interested buyers. In 1816 the first building to be constructed immediately adjacent to what was then called the White House wasSt. John's Church on the area known as President's Square. This was followed two years later by a home built by Commodore Stephen Decatur on the west side of the Square. Then in 1820 the first home on the east side was built by a former representative from Massachusetts, Richard Cutts, who was the brother in law of James Madison's wife Dolly. Streets were then opened on both sides of the area, which had becomeknown as Lafayette Square shortly after General Lafayette paid a visit to the city in 1824. The street on the east side was called 15 ½ Street, or Lafayette Square east, until 1859 when it officially became Madison Place while the street on the west side became Jackson Place.

Cutts was Second Controller of the Currency when he moved into his home on Madison Place but unfortunately could not take care of his own personal affairs and became insolvent and was headed for jail in 1828 until James Madison stepped in and satisfied Cutt's debts in exchange for his home. James and Dolly Madison never moved into their home in the capital but rented the property to various government officials. When James died in 1836 at their plantation home in Montpelier, Orange County, Virginia, Dolly decided to move to Washington from the plantation a year later. But she soon found that living in the capital was much too expensive, so she was forced to rent the property and by 1840 had returned to Orange County. Keeping up the plantation proved equally difficult so 1844 she was forced to sell the plantation and once again move back to Washington. This time, to help her financial situation, she was able to sell her husband's valuable papers to Congress and thus be able to live comfortably in her home on Madison Place. A favorite personality of Washingtonians, the home soon became as famous a place as the White House especially on New Year's Day and the Fourth of July when the public would first visit the White House to call upon the President and then cross the Square to see Mrs. Madison. When she died in 1848President Zachary Taylor led a procession of diplomats, members of Congress and the Supreme Court, city officials and friends from the service at St. John's Church to Congressional Cemetery in southeast Washington where the body was placed in a vault until moved to Montpelier several years later.

When she died in 1849 the house was purchased by Captain Charles Wilkes who made a great many renovations to the property which included the addition of a third floor. When the Civil War began, the house was turned over to the government for the Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac George McClellan who made it his headquarters for several months in the fall of 1861. President Lincoln found it very convenient to walk across the Square to visit the General and talk about his plans for capturing Richmond. McClellan got tired of these late night visits so one time he just went right up to bed after visiting his troops even though Lincoln was waiting for him in the downstairs parlor. McClellan finally moved down H Street to larger quarters and the house reverted to the Commanding General of the Washington Military District. Wilkes moved back into his house after the war until he died and the family then sold the property to the Cosmos Club.

The Club made further expansion to the house and then purchased two adjacent properties which it razed and then built a five-story building. By 1917 it had purchased the adjacent Tayloe House and made it a ladies annex. Then in 1940 the Federal Government purchased all the Cosmos Club holdings for the construction of government buildings to compliment the nearby Treasury Annex on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of Madison Place. World War II intervened and all construction in Washington ceased so Cosmos rented the property back until 1952 when it moved to its new home on Massachusetts Avenue. The Government then placed the National Science Foundation in the buildings just vacated until 1958 when it became the first headquarters of NASA. Here the first American astronauts to go into space were introduced on April 9, 1959. When the restoration of the Square was completed in 1967, the property became the first home of the Federal Judicial Center in 1968 and it remained there until 1992 when they moved to a new location on Union Station. The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has occupied the property since that date.

The next three figures in our history are President Andrew Jackson, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky and Benjamin Ogle Taylor. Jackson was elected President in 1829, the same year that Tayloe purchased a lot on Madison place which was adjacent to the Madison property. After Tayloe built his house, he decided to lease it for several years choosing to remain on his estate in King George County, Virginia. Then in 1832 Tayloe moved to Washington to assist his close friend Clay in his losing race for the Presidency against Jackson. Meanwhile Tayloe's father John Tayloe, who had built the Octagon House, died and left numerous properties to his son Benjamin Ogle, one being Willard's Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Tayloe then became very much involved in civic affairs and a strong supporter of the new Whig party. In the election of 1840 Tayloe backed the winning Whig candidate William Henry Harrison. Unfortunately, Harrison decided to speak for two hours at his inauguration on a bitterly cold day and soon developed a cold which turned into pneumonia. In fact, Harrison came to see Tayloe to find out if there was a good doctor in town but it was too late and Harrison was dead in 30 days.

Tayloe did not support the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1860 but after his election tried to avoid the looming conflict which would soon follow. In February so helped to form a Commission headed by Ex-President John Tyler to meet with both sides of the slavery question at the Willard Hotel. The meeting failed to resolve the many issues involved and the country was soon at war. Although Tayloe owned much property in the South and had a son join the Confederate Army, he remained at his home during the war and loyal to the Union. Immediately thereafter he left the city for a trip to Europe but took ill while traveling and died in Rome in 1867. His widow stayed in the house but willed that it should be sold by her heirs upon her death. The house was then purchased by Senator Don Cameron of Pennsylvania in 1887 who moved from his home in Harrisburg. When the famous Rodgers House next door was sold in 1894 to make way for a theater to be built on the site, Cameron decided that was too much for him and o he went back to Harrisburg and rented the property. The first tenant was the Vice President in the McKinley administration, Garret Hobart. Unfortunately, within two years, Hobart took ill and died in New Jersey and then the property was leased to Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio. Hanna was McKinley's closest advisor and it was said that the President was in the Hanna house more than in his own. Accordingly, the Tayloe House became known as "The Little White House" as the plaque on the exterior of the house indicates. Other tenants followed Hanna until 1915 when the National Women's Party leased the property. For two years Alice Paul was to lead the campaign to obtain voting rights for women from this house. The campaign was successful when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1919. In 1917 the Cosmos Club purchased the Tayloe House and made it the women's annex and an assembly hall.

Congress in 1930 authorized the purchase of all private holdings on Madison Place for the eventual construction of government buildings to be adjacent to the Treasury Annex which had been built in 1919 on the corner of Madison and Pennsylvania Avenue. By 1940 appropriations for the purchase had been approved but World War II intervened so the Cosmos Club remained as tenants of the Government until 1952 when the National moved to its present location on Massachusetts Avenue. The National Science Foundation were the first occupants of property until 1958 when it became the first home of the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration. After the construction of the National Courts Building in 1967, the Tayloe House became part of the National Courts Building. One final word on President Andrew Jackson whom Tayloe called unwavering and firm in friendship but unforgiving in hatred. Jackson said that he only had two regrets in his life: that he had not been able to shoot Henry Clay and hang John Calhoun.

The most famous house on Madison Place is known as the Rodgers House. Its occupants were among the most illustrious in the nation's capital during most of the 19th century. Commodore John Rodgers had built his residence on Madison in 1831 on a lot originally owned by Senator Henry Clay. History tells us that Clay wanted a jackass that Rodgers brought back on one of his trips to the Mediterranean to take back to Kentucky. Clay was unable to get a price for the animal until one day Rodgers told him that he would trade the jackass for one of the two lots that Clay owned on Lafayette Square. Clay immediately accepted and Rodgers became the owner of the lot and built his new home adjacent to the Tayloe House. When completed, Rodgers wasn't quite ready to move from his residence on Greenleaf Point, now Fort McNair, so he leased it to the new Attorney General in the Jackson administration, Roger B. Taney, a lawyer from Baltimore. Taney served in that position for two years and then Jackson nominated him to be Secretary of the Treasury. However, the Senate was completely opposed to what Jackson was doing with the United States Bank so they refused to confirm him. However, when Senate adjourned, Jackson gave Taney a recess appointment. But when the Senate returned, they took up the nomination again and once again defeated it. That was enough for Taney who immediately left Washington and returned to his native Baltimore. The story of Mr. Taney was just beginning, as we know. In the Congressional election of 1834, the Senate completely changed hands and Jacksonian Democrats took over. In July when the great Chief Justice John Marshall died in July 1835, Jackson sent the name of Roger B. Taney to the Senate as the new Chief Justice. Almost without dissent, he was confirmed and thus began a turbulent 28 years of presiding over the highest court at a time when the very existence of the nation was challenged. But that is another story.

Rodgers moved into his house on the Square when Taney returned to Baltimore but lived there only a few years before dying in Philadelphia in 1838 where he had sought medical help. The federal government leased the building and one of its occupants in the summer of 1845 was the new President, James Polk. His wife insisted that the White House needed restoration so they moved across Lafayette Square to the Rodgers House for several months until the work was completed. The house then became a fashionable boarding establishment until this style of living faded due to coming of railroads and families joining their husbands in the capital. It became renamed the Washington Club which was called by the locals as a drinking and gambling place. Two of its more influential members were Congressman Daniel Sickles of New York and the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia Philip Barton Key, son of the author of the national anthem and himself a former U.S. Attorney. Key was a widower with 4 children and considered to be one of the most eligible men in the capital. Sickles who resided in New York City had married Teresa a young 15 year old and they had one child. When elected Sickles leased a house on Jackson Place on Lafayette Square immediately opposite the Club.

Having considerable business and other interests, Sickles would often travel and leave Teresa to attend many of the Washington social events by herself. Then in this social circle, she met Key at one of these gatherings. Suffice it to say, that a casual meetings turned into something quite different. People in the city began to see Key on his horse Lucifer, trailing Teresa's carriage to the afternoon teas which were held several times a week. He was observed to tie the house to the carriage and then jump in. It was also noted that Key was not spending much time at the office. Then the scene shifts to the house on Jackson Place where Lucifer was often seen tied up in front. Meanwhile Sickles was out of town, usually in New York City, but he made many side trips to Barnum's Hotel in Baltimore. Key and Teresa developed a system of signals to be used when Sickles was out of town. Usually Key would appear on the Square near the Jackson statue and wave a handkerchief and Teresa would wave back so Key would know the "coast was clear." Finally Key decided that it would be more convenient to rent a house for their meetings which he did several blocks away between K and L on 15th Street. Here there was a change of signals: Key would go to the house first and then put a white ribbon or towel on the upstairs indicating he was there and Teresa would then enter the house by the backdoor. Obviously this whole affair could not be kept a secret forever. One day Sickles got an anonymous note relating the relationship between Key and Teresa and even identifying the house where they would meet.

Sickles would not believe this was happening but decided to ask one of his friends to be a "private eye" and sent him over to 15th Street. Visits were made to the neighbors on the street and a lady who occupied the house directly across the street told him of many visits of a lady to the house. In fact she was able to confirm a specific date when Sickles was out of town and a meeting took place. About the same time, Key received a note which rather bluntly said, "stay away from Lafayette Square." Key would have no part of that warning, but he did not know that Sickles confronted Teresa on Saturday night February 26, 1859 and she had confessed everything in a written statement. That was too much for the Congressman to handle so he called in his friends for advice and they told him to take it easy, don't do anything rash. After a sleepless night, Sickles called one of his friends named Butterworth and told him to go across the Square to the Club and inquire whether Key had a room there. Just about that time he looked out the front window and there was Key standing near the Jackson statue and talking with a young couple while waving his handkerchief. Butterworth left the Sickles house and walked down Jackson Place to Pennsylvania Avenue and headed toward Madison Place feeling sure that Sickles was not going to do anything immediately. But Sickles had immediately gone out the backdoor, went up Jackson to H Street and then headed toward the Club.

At the corner of Pennsylvania and Madison Place, in front of the Gunnell House on the corner, Butterworth ran into Key and they both started toward the Club. Just then Sickles turned into Madison Place and saw them talking. He immediately ran up to Key and said, "You must die," and pulled out a derringer pistol. But the pistol misfired as Key backed up to a tree and pulled out a pair of opera glasses from his pocket and threw them at Sickles but missed. Sickles dropped the derringer and pulled out another pistol and from only a few feet away fired again. This pistol did not misfire and the shot hit him in the upper leg. Key fell down against the tree and pleaded with Sickles "not to murder him" and "don't fire again." But Sickles from two feet away then shot him in the chest near the heart. Key fell on his right side and Sickles then went up to him and put the pistol to his head but the pistol again misfired. By that time Butterworth, who was standing against the Gunnell fence, rushed up and with the help of several others from the Club pulled Sickles back before he could fire again. Key was obviously dying as they carried him into the Club and before a doctor could arrive he was dead. Sickles said to Butterworth they should go to see the Attorney General Black on lived several blocks away on Franklin Square. When they arrived there, Sickles told Butterworh to go back and get the opera glasses which Key had thrown at him as evidence which he did. Meanwhile, Tayloe had rushed out of his house next door to the Club and saw Key being taken into the Club. When he went in Key was already dead so Tayloe removed from Key's shirt his cuff links which he wanted to give to Key's children.

A murder had been committed for there were many witnesses that saw Sickles shoot Key. One was the owner of the Gunnell house who saw all the action from his upstairs window. Another unusual eyewitness was a page from the White House who returning from an errand and was on Madison Place at the time. He immediately ran back to the White House to see the President and tell him what had just taken place. President Buchanan foresaw all kinds of political problems for Sickles was one of his greatest supporters. So he quickly told the page that he should take a vacation because being an eyewitness he would be called as a witness for the prosecution. So President Buchanan gave him a razor and money to buy a train ticket to his home in Wilmington and told him to leave immediately. Which he did and never came back. Buchanan thought things would get better and they did.

Sickles was charged with murder by the grand jury and one of the jurors interestingly was Benjamin Ogle Tayloe. In early April 1859 the trial began and lasted 17 days. Sickles had obtained eight of the best criminal lawyers in the country including an attorney from New York City named Brady and also another local lawyer by the name of Edwin Stanton who later became Secretary of War for the Lincoln Administration. The prosecution was led by Key's assistant who was somewhat of a novice at such matters; he didn't even remember that to be a juror in those days you had to have assets worth $800 in order to serve. In any event, everybody knew what had been done so the defense argued that Sickles was temporarily insane and was obviously trying to protect his family reputation. They offered Teresa's confession as evidence and the opera glasses that Key was trying to injure Sickles. Teresa's confession was not admitted by the judge ruling that it was not really necessary under the circumstances. The prosecution argued that Sickles had murdered Key with malice aforethought considering that Sickles was a walking magazine. They brought the manager of the Barnum Hotel in Baltimore in order to prove that Sickles was not as entirely as innocent as he appeared having visited there with at least one lady friend over a long period of time. While the manager waited outside the courtroom for days, the Judge finally ruled that really his testimony was irrelevant to the matter at hand. The lead defense attorney Brady completely won over the jury and when he made his final summation the audience in the courtroom broke into loud applause. The jury retired from the courtroom to discuss the case and render a verdict at 1:30 PM one afternoon and returned in slightly over one hour to give a verdict of "not guilty by reason of temporary insanity" for the first time in American jurisprudence. Sickles, who a recent biographer called " An American Scoundrel," became a general during the Civil War, fought at the battle of Gettysburg and had his right leg blown off by a cannon ball. He had the presence of mind to tell the medical corpsmen to preserve the leg which they did and it can be seen at the Walter Reed Medical Museum in Washington. His public service continued after the war when be became the Military Governor of South Carolina and then he was appointed as Ambassador of Spain in 1869 by President Grant midst newspapers around the country demanding his recall terming him a notorious rowdy who would disgrace his country. A Washington paper added that in the catalogue of evildoing there was nothing remaining. Sickles he did serve out his term as Ambassador even though he was known to have a relationship with the former Queen Isabella of Spain. In any event, he returned to New York City and eventually died at the age of 95. Teresa had gone back to New York City before the trial and Sickles did return to her but she contracted a lung disease within a short time and died at the age of 30.

After the fateful day in 1859 the Club closed and the next occupant was Secretary of State William Seward of the incoming Lincoln Administration. A former governor of New York, Seward had campaigned for the Republican nomination in 1860 but lost out to Lincoln who promptly offered him the State position. Lincoln constantly visited Seward in his house to seek his advice on the progress of the war. On April 5,1865, Seward was thrown from his carriage and suffered an extensive neck injury which caused him to be confined to his bed with heavy braces for weeks to come. On the night of April14 a heavy set man appeared at the door and told the doorman that he had medicine for Seward. The doorman said he would take it but the stranger said he was told to give it to him personally and dashed up the stairs to the second floor. Seward's son Frederick, who was Assistant Secretary of State, was at the top of the stairs and tried to stop him. The stranger, who was Lewis Payne one of the conspirators whose intent was to kill the President and other high government officials, pulled a pistol but it misfired so he struck him on the head until Frederick was unconscious. Then he made his way to the third floor where he was met by an army nurse and Seward's daughter Fanny. The nurse tried to keep him out of the room but Payne drew a knife and slashed him and then struck Fanny repeatedly with his fist until she fell unconscious. Payne saw Seward in bed and leaped on top of him striking out with the knife. Fortunately it bounced off the wires which held a brace around Seward's neck until Seward managed to throw himself off the bed to avoid Payne. Meanwhile the nurse had recovered sufficiently and with another attendant who was in the house both jumped on Payne who threw them both off his back and fled down the stairs and out to his horse. David Herold, another conspirator, had waited outside with two horses but when he heard things were not going as planned tied Payne's horse to a tree and rode off to meet up with Booth. Payne then got on his horse and rode off toward Vermont Avenue with the doorman yelling "murderer" until Payne rode out of sight. Payne stayed in Fort Lincoln in northeast Washington for several days but then returned to the house on H Street NW of one of the conspirators, Mary Surratt where he was arrested. Payne, Herold, Mary Surratt along with a fourth conspirator were hung in the courtyard of the Washington Arsenal, now Fort McNair, in July 1865.

Seward did recover but his wife who had been ill most of her life could not overcome the events of that April night and she died three months later. The daughter Fanny also could not recover from the shock of the attack by Payne and fell victim to a lung disease and died in early 1866. Seward, however, overcame all these tragedies and served out his term. Perhaps his crowning achievement was to negotiate the treaty with Russia for the purchase of Alaska. As early as 1859 negotiations between the United States and Russia but not until March of 1867 did anything happen. Then both parties were given the word to reach an agreement. So Seward, in the parlor of the Rodgers House, offered $5 million for the territory to the Russian Ambassador who countered with an amount of $10 million; Seward said how about $7.2 million and they had a deal. Early the next morning, March 30, 1867, the treaty was signed and the Senate ratified the agreement in early April.

The last person to occupy the house was Secretary of State James Blaine in the Benjamin Harrison administration. He leased the house in 1889 but tragedy struck again when first his son and then his daughter died in the house within a year. Blaine soon after became ill, resigned and then died in the house in January 1893. In 1894 the theater interests in Chicago bought the property and soon had it demolished to make way for the Lafayette Square Opera House, later to be called the Belasco Theater. During World War II it served as the Stage Door Canteen and during the Korean War as the U.S.O. In the early 1960's it was torn down to make way for the National Courts Building.

The final house on Madison Place was built in 1831 by a dentist named James Gunnell on the other lot owned by Senator Clay. He became the Postmaster General under President VanBuren and later returned to his practice before selling the property to a naval officer and friend of Tayloe, Lafayette Maynard. At the beginning of the Civil War the house belonged to the former Secretary of War under President Buchanan, John B. Floyd, but it was soon taken over to serve as the Headquarters of the Commanding General of the Washington area. After the war the Freedman's Bank Building was constructed on part of the property but after four years it ceased operation and the government repossessed the property. It then housed the Attorney General's Office and the U.S. Court of Claims before it was torn down to make way for the Treasury Annex in 1919.

With the restoration of the Lafayette Square area in the 1960's under plans developed by President John F. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy, two of the famous houses, the Dolly Madison and the Benjamin Ogle Tayloe Houses, survive and remain as historic places in our nation.