Women’s History Month: The ‘First’ First Lady, Dolley Madison

During the 1840s, a simple, federal-style house at the northeast corner of Lafayette Square was the second most visited residence in Washington, DC.  The building’s historic significance and its later preservation are intrinsically tied to two accomplished American women, both former residents of the neighboring White House—which was, incidentally, the first most visited residence in the nation’s capital.

Dolley Madison's Old House in Lafayette Square. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith Photography, Inc Library of Congress)
Dolley Madison’s Old House in Lafayette Square. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith Photography, Inc
Library of Congress)

In 1844, Dolley Madison (1768-1849), widow of President James Madison, took up permanent residence at the Washington home after financial hardship led to the sale of the couple’s Virginia estate, Montpelier. Widely reported upon by the contemporary press, her annual New Year’s open houses succeeded the popular weekly levees or parties she had established at the White House twenty-five years earlier, when Madison played a prominent role in American politics. Visitors described her as a dignified, gracious, and commanding figure, seeming younger than her seventy-five years. When she died in 1849, her remains lay at her Lafayette Square residence until her funeral at nearby St. John’s Church four days later.

After Madison’s death, the house that now bears her name remained a private residence for several years and then was used by the Cosmos Club before it was rehabilitated for government offices in the mid-twentieth century. Soon thereafter, an imminent plan to raze the nineteenth-century town houses fronting Lafayette Square and replace them with monumental, modern buildings threatened the area’s historic character. But in 1962, in a landmark event for the historic preservation movement, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy intervened and lobbied GSA to stop their impending demolition. Plans were re-envisioned, with GSA ultimately restoring the original houses and supplementing them with new federal buildings designed to complement the historic setting.

Lafayette Square was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970.  Today, the Dolley Madison House provides conference space as part of the National Courts complex.