Washington Star
April 21, 1924

Outlined by Major Gist Blair

Sketches of Lives of Prominent Men Living on Border
of Plot Given Before Historical Society.

History of Lafayette square, the early buildings surrounding it and sketches of many persons who played prominent parts in the history of the nation while dwelling on the border of that historic landmark in front of the White House, were outlined by Maj. Gist Blair before the Columbia Historical Society in the Cosmos Club last night.

This historic square of Washington, which was named after the famous French general after his visit to this city in 1824, was a part of patents issued to John Pearce, September 23, 1685, when he obtained two tracts of land of 500 acres in that vicinity, Maj. Blair explained.

From the date of the Pearce patents to the time when the Commissioners, appointed to establish the city, entered into their agreement with the proprietors, the land descended through several generations of that family and was owned by them when President Washington on February 3, 1791, wrote William Dearkins, Jr. and Benjamin Stoddart asking them to assist him in acquiring land "for the purpose of the town." The plot of ground, which included Lafayette Square, was then owned by Edward Pearce.

Mr. Pearce, the speaker continued, was a successful farmer and at that time owned a farmhouse at the northeast corner of the square. The graves of the Pearce family were on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue opposite the President's house, and an apple orchard nearly covered the square.

Was President's Square

The square first became known as President's square and up to the year 1800 graves of the Pearce family remained in the square undisturbed and surrounded by a small wooden fence, he said. Quoting from "Recollections of Christian Hines," he said that at the time of the removal of the graves "all that was found were a few bones, some black dust and a piece of comb."

Following the establishment of "President's Square," there were no houses of buildings on its borders. "Buildings in the White House Grounds," he said, "were the first to be erected along the square's boundary lines."

"The second house to be built on the square was the old Decatur house, designed by Latrobe, the architect for the Capitol, and was erected by Commodore Stephen Decatur from prize money won in the wars with the pirates of Tripoli." "The house was erected in 1819," he said.

Square Leveled and Fenced.

In 1826, the square was leveled and fenced in with a paling fence. This wooden fence was replaced by an iron one in 1853, when the statue to Gen. Jackson was erected." continued Maj. Blair.

In 1858 the streets on the east and west sides of the square were named by the city council Madison place and Jackson place. Before this time they were called Connecticut avenue, 16 1/2 or 15 1/2, according to the whim of the people," he said.

Previous to that time, in 1845, Lafayette Square was the lobby of the White House, and Congress proposed to use the land for five residences for the members of the President's cabinet. Lafayette Square had been layed off in walks, completely inclosed and had a pavement put around it, and in 1833 the grounds were further improved and a drainage system installed. The square was more extensively improved in 1874.

Telling of the early buildings erected along the square, he recalled the building of the St. John's Church, which was ready for occupancy in 1816. The Rev. Dr. Wilmer of Alexandria, Va., was its first pastor. He told of many historic events in connection with this ancient landmark and place of worship. Among the attendants at this church have been Presidents Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, Fillmore, Buchanan and Arthur.

The large brownstone building facing the square on H street between the St. John's Church and the newly erected United States Chamber of Commerce building, was build by Matthew St. Clair Clark, clerk of the House of Representatives in 1822, he said. This house was at one time the home of Joseph Gale, editor of the National Intelligencer, a newspaper of the day, and was later resided in by Lord Ashburton, when he negotiated a treaty with Daniel Webster, Secretary of State.

At this point Mr. Blair outlined the many things that had been done to bring about pan-American tranquility by those who had resided on the borders of the square. One the northwest corner of 16th and H streets was the home of John Hay, private secretary to President Lincoln. Next to the house built by Hay was the home of Henry Adams. Next to the Adams house stood an old colonial residence built by Thomas Corcoran, brother of W.W. Corcoran. He died before the house was completed. The house was bought by Thomas Ritchie, editor and government printer under President Polk. Later Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy under President Lincoln, resided there.

The house was destroyed to make room for the Chamber of Commerce building. Another house, nearby, long known as the Corcoran House, was occupied by the banker and philanthropist, W.W. Corcoran.

Further Historic Detail

Giving further historic detail about the houses bordering on this famous square, he told of No. 22 Jackson place, which was the home of William L. Marcy, Secretary of War under President Polk. The house later was occupied by many prominent personages, including President Roosevelt, who lived there in 1902 while the White House was being remodeled.

He said No. 20 Jackson place was for many years the home of Charles C. Glover, president of the Riggs National Bank; No. 18 Jackson place was the home of William J. Murtagh, founder of the National Republican in 1860.

No. 16 Jackson place was built and resided in by Gen. J.G. Parke of the United States Army, and No.14 Jackson place was originally built by Dr. Ewell, a naval surgeon and subsequently occupied by three secretaries of the Navy, Smith Thompson, Samuel Southard and Levi Woodbury, he said.

No. 12 Jackson place was built by James Blair; No. 10 was occupied in turn by Senator Arthur P. Gorman of Maryland, Senator Dolf of Oregon and Nicholas L. Anderson, famous persons of the day.

When Lincoln Was Shot.

Maj. Blair also recounted the history of No. 8 Jackson place which was occupied by Col. Henry R. Rathbone, who attended Ford's Theater with Lincoln the night that the President was shot.

Where the Treasury annex now stands, on the east side of the square, was a house erected in 1836 by Dr. Thomas Bunnell, city postmaster, he said. After Mr. Gunnell's death, Samuel D. Hubbare, Postmaster General under President Filmore, resided there. A house adjoining on the north side was built by Commodore John Rodgers of the United States NAvy in 1831. The house was later rented to Roger B. Taney, Secretary of the Treasury under President Jackson, and later to others famous in the nation's history. The house passed into the hands of William R. Seward, Secretary of State under President Lincoln.

The Belasco Theater now occupies this historic spot.

Lafayette Square Statues

He described the statues in Lafayette Square. He told of their history unveiling, and of events connected with them. The principal statue in the square, he said, is the one to Andrew Jackson, general and President.

In conclusion he said: "Lafayette Square is a historical monument. It represents a great past, it contains a great hope for the future. Maj. Blair, who himself lives near the square is the author of the "History of Silver Spring" and other historical papers.

Exhibited at the meeting were the kind of hat worn by Dolly Madison, and many copies of old Washington newspapers. Allen C. Clark, president of the society presided.

Describes Madison House

The residence of Dolly Madison, now the Cosmos Club, was described after its occupancy by former President and Mrs. Madison. Recalling that he was standing on a platform practically on the spot on which many of the great social events of that day were held, he told of the many great statesmen that had gathered in the Madison home, and the prominent position that Mrs. Madison occupied in the social life of this city. After leaving the White House, Mrs. Madison resided in the home there most of the time until here death in 1840.