- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2001

The Octagon, built in 1801, is among the most handsome of Washington's historic buildings.

William Thornton, the first architect of the U.S. Capitol, designed the three-story structure as a private residence for Col. John Tayloe III. The owner, who entertained many luminaries at the house, was a wealthy Virginia planter who had been encouraged by George Washington to build his town home in Washington rather than Philadelphia. The house, built on a triangular lot at 1799 New York Ave. NW, featured an unusual layout and the only eight-sided round rooms in a local home.

The Octagon, now owned by the American Architectural Foundation, is celebrating its 200th anniversary with an unusual exhibition, "Through the Looking Glass: Celebrating the Octagon's Bicentennial."

Exhibit curator Vivienne Lassman invited 13 regional artists and architects to comment visually on the building's past and present for the exhibition. Juxtaposing yesterday with today isn't easy, however.

Old manners and ways as painted by artist Peter Waddell can grate with the cutting-edge sleekness of F.L. "Rick" Wall's furniture and Chuck Close's "Self-Portrait" in the drawing room.

Richard L. Dana had to fit his angular floor-to-ceiling "House/Home" in the round second-floor Treaty Room where President James Madison, who moved there temporarily after the British burned the White House, signed the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812.

Moreover, what is Annette Polan's outlandish pop installation "Bed Talk" doing in Mrs. Tayloe's elegant former bedroom?

Miss Lassman considers Col. Tayloe to have been a risk-taker and visionary, but she says few documents detail the building of the Octagon or describe its early residents.

The Octagon was one of only a few significant buildings in Washington at the time it was built. It rose out of what was then forest. Cesar Pelli, architect of the North Terminal at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, made an iris print of it for the show.

"The Octagon … has the power to take us back 200 years more forcefully than any other building of the same period. It is easy to imagine it standing alone in a field of green," Mr. Pelli wrote on the exhibit label.

Architects Ted Adamstein and Olivia Demetriou included the trees in their standing, three-dimensional transparent collage. They made a four-part layering of elevations and sections through photographs and drawings that evoke the Octagon's rich visual history.

Several artists invoked the passage of time. Mr. Waddell's "Closing Up: Grandmother's House 1855" shows the drawing room as it might have appeared then. The family is leaving for the last time. He pictured the room's walls covered with a French panoramic wallpaper block-printed with exotic plants.

Other papers decorate the room: a "faux marbe" dado paper used below the chair rail and a border paper of garlands beneath the cornice. Two servants lift out an ormolu-mounted, mahogany recamier couch, made in New York around 1815.

The Tayloe grandchildren join in what they regard as the fun. Two roll up long carpet strips, patterned with geometric designs. Two others take turns on the ladder to remove and carefully prepare the classical drapery for return to the family home in Virginia.

Mr. Waddell wrote in the exhibition label that what was desired in a home in the early and mid-19th century was "a haven from the heat and dust in summer, the mud and dreariness in winter, of the outside world. Thus, those with the means passionately embraced vivid colors and sparkling, light-reflective surfaces."

Mr. Wall, who installed an enormous Chuck Close "Self-Portrait" over the fireplace in the second-floor Collector's Gallery and "Cornwall" sculptures by John Dreyfuss, was invited by the curator to project the room to reflect Col. Tayloe as an adventurous collector. He believes the room's magic lies in its furniture — past and present.

"The rooms in this historic house once held chairs where presidents and generals sat discussing matters of state, and tables where wars were planned and treaties were signed. I believe they are saying to these pieces I have made, 'Have a long and interesting life,' " Mr. Wall says.

No doubt the sculptor's meticulously made chairs, table and lamps of copper, glass, steel, wood and fabric are substantial and fanciful enough to give both support and pleasure.

Charlottesville sculptor Anne Slaughter's sculpted memories and poet E. Ethelbert Miller's recorded story "Africans in Wonderland" evoke the white and black pasts of the house. Miss Slaughter, who grew up in Belgrade during World War II, remembers its torn-apart buildings with their ripped wallpaper.

Her string-linen-canvas-wrapped sculptures of portals and columns show their destruction over time by acts of man. She salvaged two old wooden doors and waxed and incised them with writing. They stand as silent sentinels in the stair hall.

The voice of Mr. Miller, who is director of the African-American Resource Art Center at Howard University, booms up from the slaves' and servants' quarters. The Octagon commissioned him to write a poem, and he recorded a story about slaves' "Middle Passage" with Aretha Franklin's singing of "Amazing Grace."

Across the garden at the American Institute of Architects is Sam Gilliam's series of "Apertures." They were sculpted to reflect the theme of apertures, or openings, which Miss Lassman thinks of as basic to the Octagon's original design. Mr. Gilliam's dazzling colors and circular shadows from holes in the many-layered plywood are a brilliant transformation of past to present.

Sculptor Wendy Ross also transforms the geometric circles and squares of the Octagon into fleeting reflections cast by her steel sculptures.

WHAT: "Through the Looking Glass: Celebrating the Octagon's Bicentennial"WHERE: Octagon Museum, 1799 New York Ave. NWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through June 3TICKETS: $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniorsPHONE: 202/638-3105


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