Washington Post

Windows On History

Sunday, December 6, 1998; Page C08

Those who want to have a sense of what our capital city was like a century or more ago now have a place to get a good perspective on the past -- through the windows of the house that Benjamin Ogle Tayloe built for his new wife in 1828.

The house, on Madison Place overlooking Lafayette Square, is part of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which was built around the house 30 years ago. Thanks to the reopening of the government-run Tayloe Cafe on the second floor of the house, history buffs can savor Washington history along with their breakfast muffin or meatloaf-and-potato lunch.

The view out these windows, beyond the lacy wrought-iron balcony, is of the timeless scene that Tayloe wrote about in his book, "Our Neighbors on LaFayette Square." The book, published in 1872 and reprinted in 1982 by the Junior League, brims with personal observations, keen opinions and gossip.

"While I write, President Lincoln is passing my window followed by a cavalry escort with drawn swords," Tayloe noted as he wove his narrative about his famous neighbors on the historic square bordering the White House.

Tayloe, who dined with the presidents who inhabited the White House during the 40 years that he lived on Lafayette Square, gives frank and unflattering opinions about his neighbors:

Andrew Jackson "required subservience from his friends."

John Tyler was "intoxicated by vanity, success, power."

James Polk was a "man of mediocrity."

Franklin Pierce "might do for a gentleman usher."

He also quoted the scathing remarks of others, including an English lord who said that James Madison reminded him of a schoolmaster dressed up for a funeral.

Tayloe, who wrote his book on a table that once belonged to George Washington, recorded the hearsay and scandals of his day. He reported "on good authority" that the wife of U.S. Capitol architect William Thornton was not the accomplished English lady she appeared to be, but the daughter of a forger executed by King George III.

He revealed that the woman who married naval hero Commodore Stephen Decatur had made advances to her future husband while he was engaged to another woman.

Tayloe filled his book with lots of such colorful anecdotes. One day, he wrote, his dentist neighbor received a message from President Van Buren to come to the White House. When the dentist entered the executive mansion he did so as a dentist. But when he came out, he was the city's new postmaster.

Tayloe brings the much-respected Capitol architect Thornton to life with a vignette about the man's eccentricities. As a result of Thornton's claiming that he -- not Robert Fulton -- had invented the steam engine, Thornton and Fulton carried on a heated feud. Fulton baited Thornton by saying that he had invented a means of converting sawdust into planks.

"I have known of it for a long time," Thornton replied.

"But you never knew of my invention -- to make oak plants out of pine sawdust," Fulton said, netting his victim.

In another anecdote, Tayloe tells the story of President John Quincy Adams telling an English visitor the tale of how he lost his clothes to a high tide while bathing in the Potomac River. The president then had walked nude along the riverbank until he found someone to take a message to Mrs. Adams to send him a suit of clothes. The English guest replied, "I now have a clearer idea of republican simplicity than I did before."

Gazing out of Tayloe's windows today, it's hard not to wonder what acerbic comments he might have about his current neighbor at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

-- Maxine Atwater

is a Washington tour guide.