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The Evening Star
Contributed by Susan

Description: DC History: Lafayette Square

Date: April 19 1913

Newspaper published in: Washington, DC

Page/Column: Page 3

DC History: Lafayette Square

When President Adams and the government officials moved here in 1800, the surroundings of the President's house were in an unfinished, untidy condition, and, indeed, the interior of the house was in the same plight, the east room of which was used by the household as a drying room on wash days. Looking north, what is now the beautiful Lafayette Square, in the center of which is the statue of Jackson, was a plain unsightly area, covered with wild growth. The square had not then been leveled and about it were few habitations. This square, indeed, came near being a semicircle, for L'ENFANT in his first plan of Washington, depicting the streets ands squares in the neighborhood, included a semicircle which had its base on the present Avenue, circling around to the south side of H Street. This arrangement, however, did not stand, although the original proprietor, Samuel DAVIDSON, strenuously objected to the adoption of the changes suggested by Andrew ELLICOTT, which became effective in the plan approved by Washington.

This space now bounded by Madison Place on the east, and Jackson Place on the west, south of H Street, laid long in the open before designated by no other name than President Square, and since the thirties called Lafayette Square in the appropriation bills.

Was Once Graveyard

Christian HINES, in his reminiscences, refers to graves being in the southwest corner of the square about 1800, and an old resident states that in his boyhood, about 1840, there were evidences of a graveyard found in the northeast part skulls, bones, etc and common report was that it had been the burial place for slaves in the preceding century. Part of a pear orchard encroached the northern border. There had been erected a fence of three narrow planks prior to 1834, when $1,000 was appropriated to repair it and plant trees. At each corner of the square a stile prevented intrusion of horses and cattle, and the paths made were well worn, the center especially, by the department people. Down to 1850 it was a playground for the boys, and not infrequently were snakes killed there. When General TAYLOR occupied the White House, 1840-1850, his warhorse, Old Whitey, often browsed there as well as the cows of a cabinet officer.

Improvements on Square

In the early part of the century, the only improvement bordering the square was a large house on the northwest corner of Vermont Avenue and H Street, erected for Mrs. Anne CAZANAVE, the daughter of Notley YOUNG, who resided there a few years after the death of her husband, about 1796. In 1816 St John's Episcopal Church was erected on its present site, and on the west side of the square the house in which Commodore DECATUR died, and a house south was erected about 1819 by Dr. EWELL, the later establishing a drug store there, but there were distances between the habitations. On the east side of the square were the residences first built by B. Ogle TAYLOE and Richard CUTTS, the Madison house, being erected on the corner of H Street, in which Mrs. Madison lived for a time. In 1831 Commodore RODGERS erected a three-story residence, which after his death in 1836, became the popular boarding house of Mrs. KELLAR and Mrs. LATIMER which was afterward known as the clubhouse, now the site of the Belasco Theater. About 1839 Dr. GUNNELL erected a large brick house at the corner below, which later became the home of Colonel MANYDIER, Dr. VAN PATTEN, and others.

Settlement Was Slow

It will be seen that the settlement was very slow, and until about 1850, when preparations were being made for placing the statue of Jackson in Lafayette Square, no attempt was made to beautify this square. In that year $3,000 was expended in improving and laying out the ground, and in the following years preparations were completed for locating the statue of General. Andrew Jackson in the center. The general impression is that this statue was erected by the government, but the fact is that in 1844 measures were taken by the old Democratic Association of this city to collect money to erect a statue to the hero of New Orleans. John C. RIVES, then an active member of the association, took a prominent part and with the help of democrats elsewhere $12,000 was raised. It was seriously doubted that any artist could be found who would make an equestrian statue for that sum, and indeed, it was doubted whether a creditable equestrian statue could be made. In 1848, however, when the committee was looking for an artist, Clark MILLS, of Charleston, S.C., who had from his trade, a plasterer, become somewhat of an artist, proposed to make an equestrian statue for the sum it had raised, and soon after produced the model. He knew that this amount would not remunerate him, but he was working for the future, and his model being approved, he executed a bond to complete the work.

Old Cannon Used

The government furnished the material, old brass cannons, some of them captured by General JACKSON at New Orleans, and he erected on 15th Street and the Avenue, a frame building which he used as a workshop, foundry and residence. Then, buying a horse named Olympus, which was kept at NAILOR's stables on the site of the Municipal Building, he trained it to assume the attitude he desired, and faithfully that attitude was represented in the statue. The horse was known as the model horse about Washington and was ridden by him when an officer of the President's Mounted Guard of this city. Mr. MILLS clothed the hero with every minutia of uniform, saddle, holster and bridle, etc., and carried about with him a small model of the statue he was going to make. But few of the community expected him to succeed, and they laughed at his claim that he would furnish this statute which would stand in position without some propping.

Carried His Model

MILLS was in the habit of carrying his model about with him, and a number of incidents are recalled when doubt was expressed that he would accomplish his work. He would take the model, six inches high, from his pocket and set it on the hind legs of an incline and let it slide down to the floor. While the statue would stand alone, he, of course, would not trust it for fear the winds might cause it to lose its balance, and in casting it, he placed in the hind legs a heavy iron shaft extending into the body and forming a tenon to insert in the stone.

The casting was after many attempts completed. MILLS being occupied from October 1852 to January 1853, and on this spot within an enclosure he put the parts together, and in less than three months it was ready to be unveiled. The occasion of the unveiling was on the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans, 1853, and there was a great procession. The unveiling was in the presence of President FILLMORE, the cabinet, many members of Congress and over 20,000 people. The oration that day was delivered by Stephen A. DOUGLAS, and it may be imagined it was a proud day for Mr. MILLS. Congress had appropriated $5,000 for the pedestal in 1851, and the following year it also appropriated the sum of $20,000. An iron fence was provided and put up about same time as the statue. Roads and walks also were made in the square and a special appropriation was made to keep it in order. There was no pavement along the south side of the square until 1855, and the following year settees and lamps were provided and the square was thoroughly drained. And when the imported English sparrows were liberated by General Babcock, about 1870, the trees here were soon their home.

Other Buildings Near the Place

The house at the corner of Vermont Avenue and H Street was a hostelry owned by R. B. BICKLEY, long a department clerk, and subsequently by John D. BARCLAY, a prominent resident of the first ward, the author of Barclay's Digest of the Constitution, and well known in municipal affairs. The old building disappeared many years ago and was included in the Arlington Hotel site, on which a new building is projected. West of this place lived George MAY, a prominent member of the bar in the twenties, and Matthew St. Clair CLARKE, who was the clerk of the House of Representatives later, and north of St. John's Church was the schoolhouse of HASKELL, for years the leading school of that section.

On the site of the CORCORAN house at the corner of Connecticut Avenue, now known as the CORCORAN property, in the early part of the century, lived John BRECKINRIDGE, Lexington born Senator from Kentucky, and for a short time, under President JEFFERSON, Attorney General of the United States. Subsequently, this property was occupied by Thomas SWANN, a prominent lawyer of his day and it was improved by Mr. CORCORAN and occupied by Daniel WEBSTER when Secretary of State, over sixty years ago. Sir Edward PAKENHAM, the County Westmeath born British ambassador, and others of equal note also lived there.

For a long series of years, Lafayette Square under went improvement of the grounds, iron railing taking the place of the simple fencing, walks were laid out, trees planted and gas lights provided etc., but the Jackson statue was long the solitary occupant. In recent years, however, the statues of Lafayette, Rochambeau, Steuben and Kosciusko have been added and the grounds improved.

Submitted: 10/11/12 (Edited 10/11/12)

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