The White House's Lafayette Park
St. John's Church
Welcome to the White House’s Lafayette Park tour. I’m your guide Rick Snider, a native Washingtonian, journalist and licensed guide who enjoys telling stories of my hometown.
And, I especially love this Lafayette Park tour we're about to take because it offers so much varied history, from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to the present… all within a little park. There are even stories of lust and murder.
But we're starting across the street from Lafayette Park here at a yellow building called St. John’s Episcopal Church. It's known as the Church of the Presidents. Every president has attended services here since it opened in 1816, and they’ve all sat in the same pew: number 54. It’s still an active church, and six ghostly men are said to attend funerals here.
Many presidents weren't Episcopalian and would also worship elsewhere, but they've all made trips to St. John's given its close proximity to the White House. The church is open to the public so you can go inside – just try to be discreet.
Before we set off, let me explain how this works. VoiceMap uses your location to play commentary automatically. You can put your phone in your pocket, and focus on your surroundings. You’ll hear my voice again when you reach the next destination, and I'll give you directions to keep you on track.
Let’s start walking now. Cross over H Street towards the White House.
Follow the sidewalk to the right here.
Lafayette Park, or Lafayette Square, was created when the White House was built in the 1790s. It was a cemetery and then a race track before it was turned into a national park.
The first national Christmas tree was lit here by president Calvin Coolidge, before it was moved to the south lawn, and First Lady Jackie Kennedy saved it from development in the 1960s.
Oddly, there are more squirrels per square foot here than in any other national park. Why? Maybe because there are so many nuts in Washington.
Lafayette Park once saved the White House. When president Andrew Jackson’s 1829 inaugural supporters became too rowdy and nearly destroyed the Executive Mansion, workers took kegs of ale and whiskey into the park. The people followed and workers locked the White House doors behind them. Staffers complained of the smell of cheese smashed into the carpets for months. Amazingly, "open houses" for inaugural days continued until 1885, when they were replaced by a parade.
Today, you’ll see a morning yoga class, workers eating lunch or demonstrations about any subject and country imaginable. It’s a meeting
Gen. Von Steuben statue
The statue in front of you is of Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. Stand at attention for a moment in respect for the man who was essentially the forefather of military discipline.
Von Steuben was a Prussian-born military officer who was inspector general and Major General of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.
He's considered one of the fathers of the Continental Army. He taught military drills, tactics and discipline. His book Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops became the army’s manual. Von Steuben later served as George Washington’s Chief of Staff.
Von Steuben spoke only French and German so it wasn’t easy for troops to understand him. In fact, he was intensely disliked during the winter of Valley Forge, which was the backbone of the war effort. Von Steuben was even sent the worst soldiers. But he was a tough character, who won his men over and defeated the British.
Let's walk across Jackson Street to the corner house where Stephen DeCatur once lived.
Stephen DeCatur House
Stephen DeCatur House is now a naval museum. DeCatur was one of America’s earliest naval heroes, with victories in the War of 1812 and over the Barbary pirates. He built this home, first on the block, with money awarded from Congress.
DeCatur died in 1820, after a duel with fellow Commodore James Barron in Bladensburg, Maryland, about 7 miles from here. Barron was also wounded, but he survived. After living at this house for only one year, DeCatur now supposedly haunts it. The windows that face H Street are kept shuttered after complaints from passersby who claim to have seen his ghost.
Let's continue down the sidewalk towards the White House.
Col. Rathbone House
You’re at 712 Jackson Place, or Rathbone House.
When Lincoln was assassinated, Colonel Henry Rathbone was sitting in the theater box with his fiancée Clara. When Booth shot Lincoln, Rathbone jumped from his chair to defend him, but the assassin stabbed the Colonel before making his escape.
Rathbone was the U.S. envoy to Hanover, Germany, where he suffered a nervous breakdown and killed Clara, who was by that time his wife. He died in a German asylum in 1911, and Clara and Henry were buried together. Years later their cremated remains were scattered into a nearby river.
Keep walking towards the White House from here.
At the corner of the park, on your left, you’ll see another Revolutionary general's statue. Jean-Baptiste, Comte de Rochambeau assisted the American Continental forces by leading 7,000 French troops during the Revolutionary War.
A seasoned European fighter, Rochambeau led more men than George Washington. After spending one year on Rhode Island, Rochambeau marched his forces across Connecticut and eventually met up with Washington in the final weeks of the war. Together, they defeated British General Cornwallis at Yorketown, Virginia.
Rochambeau returned to France to lead King Louis XVI’s military during the French Revolution. He was nearly beheaded after the public takeover before being pardoned by Napoleon. He lived the rest of his days in exile.
This statue was erected in 1902 as a symbol of fellowship between the U.S. and France.
Cross over Pennsylvania Avenue now, and head left to the entrance of the White House.
You’re walking past the front door of the White House, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The smaller white building to the right is the West Wing. It contains Lincoln’s Oval Office that is still used by presidents today. In Lincoln’s time, there wasn’t a fence and people would walk right over to knock his door, looking for a job.
At 55,500 square feet, the White House was the biggest home in America during the Civil War. Lincoln’s bedroom was near the middle of the second floor, but on the other side of the building, for privacy.
Lincoln’s made his final speech at night, from a second story window on the right-hand side of the building. It was after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, which was basically the end of the Civil War. The fighting had dragged on for four years, and candles burned across the city, in every window of every building.
Residents flocked to the White House to hear Lincoln speak including Booth and two of his co-conspirators. It was here that Lincoln declared the equality of former slaves, and here that Booth first decided to assassinate the president.
The White House is much the same as it was in Lincoln’s time – only it was still called the President’s Palace back then. Teddy Roosevelt made the public’s name for it official in 1901 – a name it had acquired because the building’s white marble, which comes from nearby Virginia, stains when wet. The house had to be painted regularly, which was rare in Lincoln’s day.
This is the north side, patterned after the parliament building in Dublin by Irish architect James Hoban. He built the original White House in 1800, then returned to rebuild it in 1814, after the White House was burned by the British in the War of 1812. The white tents are for the television media, which use them for live reports.
The statue to your left is of arguably the most important person in U.S. history who wasn’t a citizen. At least, not until he was later made one.
The Marquis de Lafayette is known as the “Hero of Two Worlds” for serving as a general in the American Revolution and later the French Revolution. He wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man with Thomas Jefferson’s help, and it essentially became the French Bill of Rights.
Lafayette was 19 when he joined George Washington’s staff, and Washington enjoyed his youthful energy. Lafayette helped to enlist the help of French troops, and they played a vital part in winning the war.
In 1824, Lafayette became the first foreigner to speak before the U.S. Congress and toured all 24 states as a hero. Upon his 1834 death in Paris, Lafayette was buried with soil from Bunker Hill.
When American troops liberated Paris from the Germans in World War I, U.S. leaders visited Lafayette’s tomb and declared, “Lafayette, we are here” as payback for his help.
Turn left now, up Madison Place.
Secretary of State Seward home
Secretary of State William Seward’s house is just to your right, but it’s now a courthouse with gates and steps. On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, it was much like the homes you see next door.
Stop here for a moment.
Booth and his co-conspirators wanted to kill Seward at the same time as Lincoln and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Seward was the Secretary of State at the time, and Booth thought that if killed all three, he’d throw the Union into chaos and give the south once last chance to win the war.
Booth killed Lincoln, but co-conspirator Lewis Powell only managed to wound Seward when he broke into this very home. He was hanged all the same, along with Booth and two other accomplices.
OK, now just take a short walk to the corner home up ahead, where you just may see a ghost on the porch.
Dolley Madison porch
First Lady Dolley Madison was the wife of U.S. president James Madison. She died in the corner house to your right and is reportedly sometimes seen rocking in her chair on the porch. Not there? She's also said to haunt the Octagon House where the Madisons lived after the British burned the White House in 1814. Octagon House is nearby, on 18th St. and New York Ave.
Dolley's gracious entertaining defines her successors' role today. Now turn around and walk towards the Kosciuszko statue behind you.
OK, stand at attention for yet another Revolutionary War general.
Tadeusz Kościuszko was a national hero in the U.S., Poland and Belarus.
He was a Brigadier General during the American Revolutionary War and later led his native Poland against the Russians.
Kosciusko was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and a believer in human rights. After his death in 1798, Koscuiszko ordered his American assets to be sold to educate and free slaves.
Let's keep going towards the park’s center from here.
Murder and Temporary Insanity
Ever heard of temporary insanity? It’s when someone kills in the throes of passion, but is considered perfectly sane afterwards, and you’re standing on the spot of the very first case.
Daniel Sickles, a New York Congressman, lived across the park in what later became Rathbone House. He married Teresa Sickles when she was only 15, half her husband’s age. Seven years later in 1859, Teresa confessed that she was having an affair with Gilbert Barton Key, the son of Star Spangled Banner composer Francis Scott Key.
Not long afterwards, Daniel saw Key signaling to his wife across the park. He came out with a gun and confronted Key right where you’re standing now. Apparently Daniel lost his head, and shot Key three times, killing him on the spot. Sickles pleaded temporary insanity and was acquitted by a jury.
Let’s carry on now to our final stop straight ahead – General Andrew Jackson’s statue at the park’s center.
Andrew Jackson Statue
President Andrew Jackson wasn’t a Revolutionary War general like those on the park’s four corners, but he also killed British soldiers. Shown here in his Tennessee Volunteers uniform, Jackson became famous for defeating the British in the Battle of New Orleans despite being greatly outnumbered. Ironically, the War of 1812 was already over. Seems the internet was down that day so Jackson didn’t know.
The real value of this statue is the horse’s two front legs in the air. Legend says one leg up in battle means the rider was shot, two legs up means he’s dead. That’s only true at the Gettysburg National Battlefield. But this was the first statue in the U.S. with two legs up, and making the statue support its own weight was quite a technical achievement. Michelangelo couldn’t figure out how to do it, but sculptor Clark Mills did in 1853. There are copies of this statue in New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida.
Well, that’s it for our White House’s Lafayette Park tour. For more information on Washington tours, visit voicemap.me or my website MonumentalThoughts.com. I’m Rick Snider, thanks for coming.