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A Brief History of Decatur House
When Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr., and his wife, Susan, moved to the new federal city in 1816, they purchased land on the northwest corner of the President’s Park (today Lafayette Square) with the prize money Decatur was awarded for his naval conquests in the War of 1812. The Decaturs commissioned Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America’s first professional architect and engineer, to design a home “fit for entertaining.” In Washington, Latrobe also designed St. John’s Episcopal Church (better known as the President’s Parish) and parts of the White House.
Built in 1818, Decatur’s home was the first private residence in the White House neighborhood. Thereafter known as Decatur House, it was a nearly square three-story town house constructed with red brick in the austere Federal fashion of the day. In 1819, the Decaturs moved in with high expectations for the Capital as well as their own social position. Already a celebrity from his conquests in the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812, Stephen Decatur became one of Washington’s most celebrated figures, and the couple advanced their position by throwing a number of lavish parties in their new house. Unfortunately, the couple only occupied the house for a mere 14 months as Stephen was mortally wounded in a duel against Commodore James Barron on March 22, 1820.
After Stephen’s death, Susan auctioned most of the home’s furnishings, moved to a small house in Georgetown and rented the Decatur House for the next 15 years to a string of foreign and American dignitaries. Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, and Edward Livingston made Decatur House the unofficial residences for secretaries of state from 1827 to 1833, each renting the house while they served that post. In addition housing such prominent political figures in American history, Decatur House was continuously occupied by numerous slaves and servants who also played a pivotal role in shaping 19th century America. In 1829 Charlotte Dupuy, a women enslaved by Henry Clay, left an indelible mark on the history of Decatur House when she sued Clay for her right to freedom while living in the house.
Due to her overwhelming debt, Susan Decatur was forced to sell the home in 1836. Decatur House was purchased as a retirement home by wealthy hotel and tavern owner John Gadsby, who owned the prestigious Washington Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue as well as Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria. Among his most notable alterations to the house was the addition of a large two-story depedency building at the rear of the property, used as quarters for the numerous enslaved individuals in his household. After Gadsby’s death in 1844, his wife Providence rented the house to Vice President George M. Dallas and several members of Congress. Her last tenant was Louisiana Senator Judah P. Benjamin. During the Civil War, the federal government took over the building, using it among other things as the Headquarters for the Army Subsistence Department and a storage space for Union Army uniforms.
General Edward Beale of California purchased the town house in 1872. A frontiersman, diplomat and entrepreneur, Beale was the initiator of the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona and served as ambassador to Austria-Hungary during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Edward and his wife, Mary, redecorated the house to create a more fashionable Victorian home. They installed gaslights and added the impressive parquet floors in the second floor parlors where they frequently hosted social gatherings for Washington’s elite. Upon Edward’s death, the home was passed down to his son, Truxtun Beale, who served as ambassador to Persia and Romania. Truxtun and his wife, Marie, also did their part to carry on the tradition of entertaining in style as they hosted numerous soirees for diplomats and other prominent Washingtonians.
In 1956, after the home had been in the Beale family for 84 years, Marie Beale bequeathed the Decatur House to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Marie Beale’s generosity not only saved Decatur House, but many other historic buildings surrounding Lafayette Square which were slated to be demolished to make way for new government office buildings. Decatur House was opened to the public as a museum in the early 1960s.
In 2010, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the White House Historical Association established the National Center for White House History at Decatur House. The first of its kind, the center will house historical documentation, support research efforts and provide education programs related to the study and history of the White House.