Two of Foggy Bottom’s earliest and most haunted sites are found in the far south-east corner of the neighborhood. The Octagon (18th and New York Ave.), built in 1800, was occupied by President James Madison, and is currently owned by the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The Van Ness Mansion, built in 1816, was located at the corner of 17th and Constitution Ave. The house, with its ghost(s), has been replaced by the Pan American Union Building, but the stable, which may or may not still house six headless ghost horses, remains at 18th and C Streets.
The Octagon was one of the earliest houses built in the brand new City of Washington. Its architect was Dr. William Thornton, the original designer of the Capitol. It features a unique (technically six-sided) design that fits perfectly into its corner lot. It was built for John Tayloe III, a Virginia tobacco planter and race horse breeder. His family occupied it until 1855. It survived the war of 1812, when it served as the French ambassador’s official residence. In 1814, President James and Dolly Madison resided there while the White House was being rebuilt. Madison ratified the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war of 1812, at the Octagon. After the mid-1800s, the house was used for office, commercial, and school rentals and became a multi-family tenement. The AIA purchased it in 1902 as its headquarters. In the 1970s, it was renovated and opened to the public and is now again available for limited tours.
The Octagon is one of DC’s most haunted buildings (behind only the White House and the Capitol). Most notable are the tales of two of Tayloe’s daughters – the first was in love with a British soldier in the early 1800s, the second married without Tayloe’s consent after 1812. Tayloe did not approve of their relationships, and after arguments with Tayloe, each daughter fell/jumped from the top of the house’s impressive oval spiral staircase to their deaths below. [There is, however, no record of any Tayloe daughter dying at the house.] Visitors have seen apparitions from the Madison period, including Dolly Madison (accompanied by a scent of lilac), and she has even been seen sneaking out to meet Aaron Burr. [Burr introduced the Madisons to each other, but there is no evidence of other liaisons.]. Other odd occurrences included sightings of soldiers in military uniforms from the early 1800s, screams, moans, and shrieks, thumping from inside the walls, servant calling bells ringing, the chandelier over the staircase swinging uncontrollably, the aroma of food from non-functioning kitchen, and a ghost cat who trips people.
Several blocks south of the Octagon stood the Greek Revival style Van Ness Mansion, designed by Benjamin Latrobe, superintendent of Washington’s government buildings. John Peter Van Ness came to Washington as a Congressman from New York from 1801 to1803. He married Marcia Burnes, and the mansion became a social center of Washington. Marcia was the sole heir of David Burnes, who sold 450 acres (including the White House area) to the federal government, apparently driving a hard bargain with President Washington. (David’s spirit occasionally visits the White House.) Van Ness became a major general in the DC militia, Mayor of the City of Washington, and delegate to the first Democratic Convention (1832). He also engaged in banking, real estate, and other business ventures, and built a horse track on the property. Marcia founded and superintended the city’s first orphan asylum. The Van Ness’s only child, Ann, died in childbirth in 1823, and her child was still-born. Marcia died during the cholera epidemic of 1832. Peter commissioned an impressive neoclassical family mausoleum, which is now located in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery. He became withdrawn and let the house fall into disrepair. He died in 1846 and the house was demolished in 1908. Columbian College purchased the property in 1903 for use as a campus, in association with the George Washington Memorial Association. But the site was too small and then existing marshes made it unhealthy, so the College (which had changed its name to GWU) sold the property to the federal government in 1907. The government gave the property the Pan American Union, which built its fabulous Beaux Arts headquarters (with its lovely garden in the back) in 1910.
During the period of the Van Ness Manson’s decline, laughter and dreadful screams were heard, perhaps from the spirit of Ann, as well as footsteps and a woman in old fashioned bonnet. When the house was demolished, the impressive stable/coach house – also designed by Latrobe – remained and can still be seen in the northwest corner of the property. The building now houses the OAS Art Museum of the America’s offices. After Peter died, a carriage drawn by his finest six white horses carried his body to the family mausoleum. Since then, headless ghost horses – having buried their heads with their master — have been seen galloping around the former mansion grounds, especially on March 7, the date of Peter’s death. Presumably they then return to the stable, but they have not been seen recently.
Are there any other good Foggy Bottom ghost stories? Does body snatcher Sam McKeever still roam Hughes Mews? Do spirits from demolished row houses haunt GWU? Let me know.
Sources: John Alexander, Ghosts: Washington’s Most Famous Ghost Stories, Washingtonian Books, 1975; George McCue, Octagon, Being an Account of a Famous Washington Residence: Its Great years, Decline & Restoration, American Institute of Architects Foundation, 1976; Susan L. Klaussen, “‘Some of the Smartest Folks Here’: The Van Nesses and Community Building in Early Washington,” Washington History Fall/Winter 1991/1992, Vol. 3, No. 2., pp. 22-45.