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In the year 2011 the White House Historical Association entered its fiftieth year. Established during the administration of President John F. Kennedy, the association was an element in a complete rethinking of how the White House was interpreted to the American people—and indeed the people of the world. As one of America’s premier landmarks, the venerable fame of the White House had been extended by television to the four corners of the earth. Interpretation of the house was an old custom, really begun by President Thomas Jefferson in 1801 when he determined that, like stately homes he had seen in Europe, the house should be open to the public in a limited way. With such an arrangement of public tours, interpretation of some sort was inevitable, be it the words of a doorman with a spare ten minutes or a special way in which a room was furnished.

Interpretation was carried out at the White House in many ways over time. The presidents have all been sensitive to the public’s opinion of how they live in the “people’s house.” Not until President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration were there formal tours, with volunteer guides. By the time Kennedy came to office, the White House interpretive program was not only a burdensome necessity; it was not meaningful in a mere walk-through of the White House. Thus in 1961 the president and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and interested parties, founded the private, nonprofit White House Historical Association to develop external programs that would expand and enhance interpretation of the White House.

We began slowly with the now-famous White House guidebook. The White House: An Historic Guide is in its twenty-third edition and, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of its release, was entirely redesigned and rewritten in 2011 to serve twenty-first century visitors. We sponsor films. We provide educational programs for teachers and students that have grown to large and gratifying proportions. When requested we occassionally purchase paintings and furniture to enhance the State Rooms of the White House and thus give historical depth to what visitors see, and we fund the cyclical refurbishing of the mansion’s public rooms. We produce souvenirs and reproductions for sale as mementos of the White House, notably our widely admired annual Christmas ornament. We publish books and produce the present journal, White House History.

All of this has taken place in the relatively close confines of our old brick row houses at 740–744 Jackson Place NW, on Lafayette Square overlooking the park. Now we have expanded. In 2010 we took over responsibility for Decatur House next door, the historic house museum owned for many years by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. By arrangement with the National Trust, we have entered into a co-stewardship agreement whereby Decatur House and its adjoining complex will be incorporated into our educational and research activities. Plans for how we will accomplish this are evolving in detail and crystal clear in vision.

Elmer Chavez from the Oak Grove Restoration Company addresses the exterior shutters in the ongoing conservation work at Decatur House.

The tall, box-like, red-brick Decatur House is one of the great landmark residences of Washington. Built in 1819 for Commodore Stephen Decatur and his wife Susan, it is the only extant house of the “3 Capital Houses” designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. The other houses were razed in the early twentieth century. Work began preparing the site for the Decaturs by January 1818. Ten drawings survive and appear to be his only involvement in the work. Latrobe had moved to Baltimore by April and was on to New Orleans in December 1818. He had built what is now the core of Saint John’s Church, across the square, “The Church of the Presidents.” Decatur House was an innovative town house design with kitchen and family dining room on the ground floor, formal entertaining “saloons” and banquet room on the second level, and bedrooms adjacent to and above that. Like most innovative houses, time would see it reconfigured to conform to local habits of convenient living.

When it was opened in 1819, the house could not have been more elegant, with its vaulted hall, mahogany furniture, silver, and red curtains, nor could its owners have been more glamorous. The smallish, strikingly Byronesque Stephen and beautiful Susan Decatur presided in splendor. He was hero of the Tripolitan War (1801–1805), said to have slain enemy predators with his own knife. There was little question but that his fame would sweep him into the White House.

Fate stepped in. Gossip set him at odds with an old navy friend, Commodore James Barron. The two met in a duel—utterly illegal—which took place in a Maryland pasture. Decatur, mortally wounded, soon died in the downstairs room to the left of the front door.

The Decaturs, being big spenders in their political whirl, were fairly well hard up for money when he died. The year 1819, when the fine house was completed, was also marked by a national panic that dealt severely with even conservative investors. A sale was held of the contents of the house. Commodore Barron’s wife attended and bought a few things, all duly recorded in the auctioneer’s records.

Decatur House, as it was always to be known, was rented out for years by the widow, and finally sold. A succession of amazing tenants and subsequent owners followed the Decaturs. John Quincy Adams rented the house as secretary of state. When he ran for a second term as president in 1828, his successor at Decatur House, Henry Clay, was agonized by Adams’s defeat. Martin Van Buren rented the house during the administration of Andrew Jackson and added a window on the south side, so he could watch for signals from “The Boss” summoning him to the White House. During the 1850s Louisiana Senator Judah P. Benjamin rented the house, sharing it for a time with his estranged wife Natalie, who finally abandoned him, and another house sale took place. Benjamin went on to Richmond to serve in the Confederate cabinet.

During the Civil War the vacant house was confiscated by the Union Army for use as offices and storage by the Bureau of Subsistence, a unit of General Montgomery Meigs’s supply operations in the Quartermaster Corps, then rented once more as a residence. A bedraggled Decatur House emerged from the war and was finally sold to General Edward Fitzgerald Beale and his wife Mary. As a young navy lieutenant, Beale, disguised as a vaquero or cowboy, had carried the first solid evidence of the Gold Rush overland from California to lay before President James K. Polk. Mrs. Beale’s wedding band was made from a nugget of that California gold, and P. T. Barnum pestered her, without luck, to let him exhibit it. A close friend of President Ulysses S. Grant, Beale had come to Washington to enter the political circle and do business, for which he had a keen eye. His 200,000 acre Rancho Tejon was among the largest in California; in fact, only in the past two years has its subdivision begun to take place.

Beale was made American minister to Austria-Hungary in 1876, thus introducing a diplomatic theme that was to dominate Decatur House for the rest of its history as a private residence. The general’s son Truxton, with his wife Marie, returned to the house from the West upon the deaths of his parents. They lived there and entertained the diplomatic community, where they shone, for more than half a century. When Trux died, marie continued, and by the 1920s faced the threat of government condemnation and demolition of her house. This she battled with every influence and dime she could muster up. Upon her death in 1956, Marie Beale willed Decatur House to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For two decades the trust had its offices in the house and the adjacent house the association now occupies. When the trust offices were moved, Decatur House continued on as a historic house museum.

In the old Decatur kitchen students from local schools gather round White House Historical Association Outreach Program Manager Courtney Speaker to learn White House lore. Such intimate programs are a principal feature of the history center.

In its new destiny as the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History, Decatur House will serve many roles. The association recognizes the obligation to preserve and interpret the layers of its architecture and what it has been historically. Commodore Decatur is only part of the story. For example, there is the issue of slavery. To make the house more convenient, the kitchen was removed into an added rear wing about 1835, where domestic servants were housed in the second floor. These were usually African American slaves. It is even likely that in one interlude of ownership in the 1840s slaves were bought and sold from the property. A house so old—and it is nearly as old as the White House—has a lot of human dimension to its past that deserves interpretation.

Yet the principal use for the buildings is now education and research on another level. our White House Historical Association student and teacher seminars, our scholarships in White House history, and our many other educational activities will be housed in those historic walls. We have already undertaken some delicate preservation on the physical building, and there will naturally be more, for neither old houses, nor new, simply take care of themselves. Inside we envision a hive of activity, a continuation and expansion of the association’s work of interpreting the White House and its neighborhood. We do and shall in the future carry on this objective in as many useful and innovative ways as we can, to reach the greatest number of people.

With the addition of Decatur House, the White House Historical Association cannot be said to be reborn. We have simply gained more legroom and grown our mission. We are fortunate that this new space is in a building so historically rich, right here at home, on Lafayette Square, across from the White House.

This article was originally published in White House History Number 31 Summer 2012

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