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Jun 28, 2018 Washington, D.C. —
The White House Historical Association today released the latest episode of The 1600 Sessions podcast, “Decatur House, The President’s Neighbor”, exploring the legacy of Naval hero and Commodore Stephen Decatur and the historic Decatur House positioned in the President’s Neighborhood on Lafayette Square and part of Washington, D.C.’s earliest history.
This episode was recorded in the parlors of Decatur House itself, and features interviews with Katherine Malone-France, Senior Vice President for Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (formerly Director of Collections and Programs at Decatur House), which owns and operates Decatur House in co-stewardship with the White House Historical Association; and Osborne Mackie, Fine and Decorative Arts Expert, and contributor along with Malone-France to the soon-to-be released book, The Stephen Decatur House: A History, published by the White House Historical Association. Together, they discuss the long-lasting significance of the Decatur House in Washington.
Association President Stewart McLaurin opens the podcast, “2018, marks the bicentennial of the construction of Decatur House and the publication of a new book by the Association … The Stephen Decatur House, about this remarkable home, its occupants, and the collection of Decatur House.”
In this episode, Malone-France elaborates on the significance of this anniversary, giving a brief history of Stephen Decatur, the original owner of the house: “If you were writing the story of the early republic as a novel, you'd write a character just like Stephen Decatur…He is in many ways as bold and as brash as the young republic.” Malone-France continues, outlining the pivotal moment that made Stephen Decatur a name to remember—his encounter with the Barbary pirates. This “movie-like battle” helped create the legacy of Stephen Decatur, who would go on to play a significant role in Washington politics and social life.
Osborne Mackie explains how Decatur’s military accomplishments accumulated into the building of the Decatur House. Decatur used the awards and compensations he received during his time as a successful Navy general to build a house across from the White House. The space soon became central to the social fabric of Washington, hosting extravagant dinners, parties, and events, such as the wedding party of Maria Monroe, as Stephen and Susan Decatur were acquainted with President and First Lady Monroe.
Malone-France and McLaurin also consider the potential Stephen Decatur held, as potentially the next President of the United States, yet sadly his life was cut short when he was mortally wounded in a duel with fellow Naval officer James Barron. Malone-France explains the dilemma this left for Decatur’s young widow, Susan, who was forced to sell his possessions and rent the Decatur House to an array of prominent figures.
Mackie believes the Decatur House was only able to retrieve the home’s historic objects out of the kindness of descendants and relatives: “When the National Trust decided in its wisdom to open Decatur House as a house museum, here were family members…who'd been treasuring these things all these years, suddenly they saw there was a place in the public eye that these things can be used.”
Malone-France and McLaurin also discuss a solemn reminder present in the structure of Decatur House. Although Stephen and Susan Decatur did not own slaves, other owners of the home kept a kitchen and living quarters for enslaved persons and their families. Malone-France explains that most contemporary houses in Lafayette Square would have had similar quarters, and she points out the role of enslaved persons in the building of the White House. She calls Decatur House “the last piece of preserved physical evidence that African-Americans were held in bondage within sight of the White House.” The 1600 Sessions
In this podcast series, White House Historical Association President Stewart McLaurin interviews luminaries, historians, and eyewitnesses to history about America’s most famous residence and office—the White House. Each episode includes a prominent guest or guests to discuss varying facets of White House history, including insights from former staff and many other topical issues.
The White House Historical Association offers tours of the Decatur House on Mondays at 11AM, 12:30PM and 2PM.
About the white house historical association
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy envisioned a restored White House that conveyed a sense of history through its decorative and fine arts. She sought to inspire Americans, especially children, to explore and engage with American history and its presidents. In 1961, the White House Historical Association was established to support her vision to preserve and share the Executive Mansion’s legacy for generations to come. Supported entirely by private resources, the Association’s mission is to assist in the preservation of the state and public rooms, fund acquisitions for the White House permanent collection, and educate the public on the history of the White House. Since its founding, the Association has given more than $45 million to the White House in fulfillment of its mission.
To learn more about the White House Historical Association, please visit WhiteHouseHistory.org.