Born in 1779 to a prominent Philadelphia family, Stephen Decatur was reared in the traditions of the sea. Upon the establishment of the Navy in 1798, young Decatur embarked as a midshipman aboard the new frigate, United States. Decatur learned fast - he was commissioned Lieutenant only one year after he first donned his uniform.
The young Decatur made himself a household name for his heroism during the Barbary Wars in the beginning of the nineteenth century. In February of 1804 a squadron of the young United States Navy, led by Commodore Edward Preble, commenced an action to destroy the American frigate Philadelphia. The Philadelphia, captured by Tripolitan pirates when it ran aground off the Barbary Coast, would prove to be a major liability if used against U.S. forces. The daring plan to destroy the frigate involved the use of a captured pirate ketch, which would be used to sail in disguise into the Bay of Tripoli, allowing the American sailors to board the Philadelphia by surprise and set the ship on fire. Aptly renamed the Intrepid, the ketch was manned by volunteers, led by the young Lieutenant Decatur. The raid took place on February 16th and Commodore Preble reported that “my orders…have been executed in the most gallant and Officer like manner by Lieut Commt Decatur…Their conduct in the performance of the dangerous service assigned them, cannot be sufficiently estimated – It is beyond all praise.”
For his action on the Philadelphia Congress voted Decatur a sword and he was made a full captain, still the youngest captain in the history of the Navy. He would distinguish himself again in August of the same year, when Preble ordered a full attack on the city of Tripoli. During the battle Decatur’s brother James was killed and Preble again noted that “Capt. Decatur in Gun Boat No. 4 particularly distinguished himself.” In 1812, Captain Decatur and his men captured the ship the Macedonia and brought her back to the safe shores of the United States. Again, Decatur's exploits were celebrated around the world.
In these early years of the Navy, it was custom and law for the captors of enemy vessels to receive a monetary reward for their excellent service to their country. Decatur accumulated a generous sum following his success. With his prize money in hand and an appointment to the Navy Board of Commissioners, Commodore Decatur came to Washington in 1816. He and his wife, Susan, established themselves as a prominent citizen in the new Federal City. The couple married in 1806, shortly after first meeting in Susan's hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, where her father had served as mayor.
The Decaturs' success in Washington - and the expectation of an extended stay - motivated the couple to construct their own grand residence, rather than continue renting their Pennsylvania Avenue townhouse. In 1818 construction began on an empty lot near the White House on the President’s Park, an area today known as Lafayette Square. Decatur employed famed architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design a house built for entertaining, and used his prize money to finance its construction. Soon after its completion, the Decaturs issued over 400 invitations to a housewarming party to showcase their beautiful new home to Washington society.
Sadly, would not enjoy their new property for very long. Fourteen months after moving into the house, on March 22, 1820, Decatur was mortally wounded in a duel with Commodore James Barron.
After the death of her husband, Susan Decatur could no longer afford to live in Decatur House alone, and, after auctioning off most of its contents, quickly left the home that she and her husband had built together. Rather than selling the property, however, over the next sixteen years she used it to generate income through its rental. In the first years of her widowhood, Decatur resided with friends in both the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington and the city of Baltimore, before settling permanently in a small house in Georgetown. She never remarried. In 1836, Decatur’s large debts forced her creditors to foreclose on Decatur House – it was sold at auction to hotel and tavern owner John Gadsby for $12,000. Decatur continued to live in Georgetown well into her 80s, surviving on her small navy pension. She passed away in 1860, forty years after the death of her husband.