Research on Antiques & Collectibles

AN OLD-FASHIONED CHRISTMAS IN AN OLD-FASHIONED HOUSE:  Each year the Octagon House, an antique mansion in Washington, D.C., is turned out as it might have been in 1801

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Tucked into the fanlight above the front door, a pineapple wreathed by shiny red apples welcomes visitors to the oddly shaped brick house. Inside, gaily wrapped gifts and toys are piled on a settee, garlands of magnolia leaves and pine needles festoon the mantels, and brimming bowlfuls of fruit are everywhere. It's Christmas at the Octagon - one of the oldest buildings in the nation's capital - where the holiday is celebrated much as it was when the new mansion was first occupied in 1801.

This vision of Christmas past is provided by the American Institute of Architects Foundation. Dedicated to preserving the nation's architectural heritage, the foundation owns and maintains the Federal-style Octagon as its headquarters and as a historic house museum. Visitors to the Octagon are introduced to the kind of Christmas that was familiar to its original owners. Colonel John Tayloe III and family.

A rich and well-connected Virginia planter, he counted George Washington among his friends, Colonel Tayloe had the three-story town house built as a showplace for winter entertaining of other transplanted country gentry. With the Colonel and Mrs. Tayloe - and at least a few of their fifteen children - ensconced there, the house became a regular fixture on the lively Washington social scene. Designed to fit on a triangular corner lot, the mansion is actually a hexagon whose bay-shaped entry area gives the impression of two additional sides; it was called "the Octagon" by the Tayloes, and so it has remained.

During the War of 1812, the historic Octagon even served for a time as the Presidential mansion, after James and Dolley Madison were burned out of the White House in August 1814. When peace came the following February, as the story goes, Dolley set the house aglow with candles and flung open the doors of the Octagon to all Washingtonians in a giant celebration.

Maintained as a private residence until 1855, the Octagon was then rented out by the Tayloe family, first as a private girls' school, then as government offices. Eventually, under a succession of commercial and residential tenants, the mansion fell into disrepair; by the turn of the century, when it was acquired by the American Institute of Architects as its headquarters, it had become a squalid tenement.

Preservation of the Octagon, undertaken by the architects' institute, paved the way for a more detailed restoration project when its affiliate, the AIA Foundation, bought the building in 1968. After researching Tayloe family papers, the foundation restored the interiors as closely as possible to the original, even stripping away layers of paint in each viewing room until the first coat was found and its color duplicated.

Open to the public since 1970, the restored Octagon is a superb example of the elegant simplicity of Federal architecture. Though it now sits in the shadow of a sleek new ALA office building, the Octagon holds its own. While few of the original furnishings remain, the foundation has retained the feeling of the Federal period by furnishing the public viewing rooms with predominantly American and English pieces dating from about 1785 to 1820.

The same care has been taken yearly, since 1973, to recreate the spirit of an early Christmas. In decorating the mansion nothing artificial is being been used. Just fresh greens and fruit and paper - the ornaments available in the early nineteenth century.

In the tradition of those early Christmas celebrations, the foundation holds a party for the families of staff members and other associates of the Octagon. Guests savor cakes made from Early American recipes and sip such concoctions as fish house punch – a powerful fruit-based mix of brandy, rum and wine that helps stave off the December dampness for today's Washingtonians, as it did in the days of the Tayloes. With its splashes of greenery, mountains of fresh fruit and scent of pine, the Octagon evokes for modern visitors the pleasures of Christmas in a time before tinsel.