Preserving the past for a better future

The Octagon teaches us about America’s past and its continued progress. That’s why we’re working to keep its structure sound and its legacy alive, with exhibits, educational programs, and multi-site partnerships.

Designed by the first architect of the United States Capitol, William Thornton, the Octagon has witnessed some of history’s most significant moments, including the 1814 burning of Washington, the official end of the War of 1812, and D.C.’s rise as a symbol of democracy. Starting in 1898, it was the American Institute of Architects’ first D.C. headquarters.

The Octagon allows visitors to discover how architecture can teach us about the people who created and used it. The Octagon was built by one of the largest slave-owners in the state of Virginia, and is reflective of a time when many Americans’ wealth was built on the un-paid, un-free labor of others. By telling the stories of all those who lived and worked at the Octagon, from President James Madison to enslaved woman Winney Jackson, we help visitors discover the power of architecture to show us who we are, and who we want to be.

Unlike most museums, at the Octagon visitors are welcome to get up-close and hands-on with the objects–play a game of whist in the Drawing Room, try out a rope bed in the Housekeeper’s Room, and carry a bucket of coal up the Service Stairs. History comes alive as you compare the diverse lives lived in the Octagon with your own experiences today!

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