top of page

Published October 2020

Timing is Everything


By Jen Levisen


With a goal to support, inspire and empower the next generation of architects, the Architects Foundation, the philanthropic partner of The American Institute of Architects, has been working over the last three years to build a platform that allows for a broader conversation about the inspirational nature of the industry and the impact architecture has on the world.

“The foundation’s headquarters, The Octagon, is a place of inspiration, but we’ve struggled with how to bring this historic place to life and how to bring it into context with today’s world,” says Marci Reed, the foundation’s executive director.

“It’s through partnerships, like ours with Mortarr, that we’re able to have a broader conversation not only about the inspirational nature of architecture, but also the work that architects are trying to do around equity, justice, and climate change.”

A History Lesson​

The American Institute of Architects was founded in 1857 in New York. As part of the role of the AIA was to lobby on behalf of its members the decision was made to move the organization to Washington, D.C., before the turn of the century.


“An architect named Glenn Brown came to D.C. to scout locations and when he found The Octagon, which is an exquisite example of federal architecture, so close to the White House and the capital, he fell in love,” says Reed.

Completed in 1801, The Octagon House was constructed by enslaved workers for John Tayloe III and his wife Ann Ogle Tayloe, one of Virginia’s most prominent families. The home was designed by William Thornton, the first architect of the United States Capitol.


In 1814-15, The Octagon served as the White House for James and Dolley Madison after the Burning of Washington.


The Tayloe family lived in the home until Anne’s death in 1855. Her sons then rented the home, first to a Catholic girls’ school and later to the federal government for office space. By the 1880s, the building housed numerous poor families as a tenement.

The AIA rented the home in 1898 and quickly got to work restoring it. The organization purchased the building in 1902 and used it as its headquarters through 1970. In 1970, The Octagon was first opened to the public as a museum.

Interested to know more about The Octagon? Check out the Architects Foundation’s Mortarr profile for a guided digital tour of the home.

New Life​

Currently operated by the Architects Foundation, The Octagon is closed due to COVID-19, but under normal operations offers self-guided tours, permanent and changing exhibitions, public programming, and guided tours by appointment.


“Along with programming The Octagon, we also oversee the AIA’s diversity scholarships,” says Reed. Those scholarships were an answer to the AIA’s work of determining what the profession needed most — a pipeline of diverse talent for the future of the industry.


In 1968 Whitney Young was invited to speak at the AIA National Convention. At the time a lot of tenement housing was being built in major cities and, “some AIA members felt that while they were supposed to be building communities, what they were actually doing was segregating the poorest of the poor from opportunity,” says Reed.

Young challenged the AIA to start a scholarship program for minorities and the disadvantaged, which the organization did in 1970 after three black architects received a half a million dollars in funding from both the Ford Foundation and the AIA. These funds were not endowed, however, so the AIA recommitted $1M in funding in 2016 — half in an endowment, and half being currently expended.


“A quote from Young during his speech," says Reed, "was, 'You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cuase of civil rights ... You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.'" 

Read Young's full speech.