THERE is a move among historic museums to replace earlier idealistic restorations with more authentic scenes. Teams of experts at historic houses and restored villages are giving old descriptive documents a second look, foraging for new disclosures, and reviewing what is at hand. Children and adults need no longer come away from a historic site with the misconception that rooms and buildings were consistently neat and pretty. In fact, as the fervor increases for more realistic portrayals, many surprises are in store: perhaps dramatically less furniture in a formerly crowded room or pilasters decorating what was previously a bare wall. In some instances, the changes are attractive; in others, they may jar modern-day viewers.
Washington's 1801 Octagon House began a restoration-reinterpretation project five years ago that, it is hoped, will be completed in another five years. Instead of shutting the doors as work progresses, visitors are invited to tour the house and to gain an insight into the project, the mansion, and its nationally significant locationthrough exhibitions, lectures, and publications.
Octagon House is an outstanding example of American Federal-style architecture. It was designed by William Thornton, the first architect of the United States Capitol, as a city residence for a Virginia plantation-owner, Col. John Tayloe III, and his wife, Ann Ogle Tayloe. Tayloe decided to build a sophisticated urban home in the raw community instead of in Philadelphia when his friend, George Washington, convinced him of the bright future of the national capital and his wife expressed a wish to be near her friend Nelly Custis of Mount Vernon.
During the War of 1812, Octagon House was the temporary home of President and Mrs. James Madison after the White House was gutted by British fire. It was the site of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent that signaled the end of the war. Always, Octagon House was a center for social gatherings of notables of the day, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Adams, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun.
After the Tayloes moved in 1855, Octagon House served a variety of purposes as the surrounding area lost its residential character. In 1897, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) used the house as its headquarters. AIA rehabilitated the structure and, in 1968, when a larger building was under construction on the Octagon House grounds, ownership was transferred to the AIA Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization. The foundation mandate was to operate the house and to maintain its physical integrity.
Through the years, the foundation was conscientious in its protection of the structure. But the interior decorative aspects - paint, wall, and floor coverings, the architectural elements - were given only a cursory investigation. And so, five years ago, the decision was made that the time had come for in-depth research to provide ``an accurate picture of the house that might, in turn, mean making changes,'' according to Nancy Davis, the director of Octagon House.
The windows on the front fa,cade are now completed. The entrance hall has been repainted to an early 19th-century green, a pigment that was originally made from scrapings of corroded copper and was a popular color in the homes of the wealthy. The bright tone delineates the superb architectural details of the room, including two original classical-design stoves.
The research activities, which go hand in hand with the restoration, are bringing further discoveries and offering fresh perspectives to the historic background. When 33 layers of paint were removed from the pilasters beside the entrance door, for example, exquisite composition work came to light. It was created by George Andres, who was responsible for similar work in the White House, the United States Capitol, and Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello.
When the names of the Octagon House carpenters and craftsmen were discovered roughly listed in the original account books, they were painstakingly compared with census records, newspaper advertisements, and bills of the day. It was often difficult to match a name with a skill. But the results brought a fuller understanding of the house - as well as the entire city - since most of the labor force also worked on the White House and the Capitol.
The public programs to complement the project began last year, with ``Creating the Federal City: Potomac Fever,'' an exhibition that provided a physical and geographical context for Octagon House. An exhibition, ``Building the Octagon,'' will be highlighted by lectures on related topics, such as ``The Cultural Meaning of Early 19th Century Housing,'' and a bus tour of ``Federal Period Washington: Architecture and Social History.'' Plans have already been made as far ahead as 1992 for the exhibition and accompanying talks. The focus will be on the economic and cultural life of early 19th-century Washington.
From a professional standpoint, Nancy Davis regards the ongoing research efforts and reinterpretations at historic sites as a positive move toward ``being honest and accurate and depending on what research tells us rather than on our own taste.''
The Octagon Museum is located at 1799 New York Avenue N.W. at 18th Street in Washington. It is open weekdays, except Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday afternoons, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on major holidays. Admission is free but donations are encouraged. Exhibitions are in the Octagon exhibition galleries. Lectures are in The Board Room, The American Institute of Architects, 1735 New York Avenue N.W. There is a charge of $5 per lecture.