One of Washington's original homes for socializing, Decatur House, celebrates its 200th anniversary.
Decatur House on Lafayette Square was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who designed the U.S. Capitol building.
Washington is filled with the ghosts of history. One of the more interesting tales is that of Stephen Decatur, whose magnificent home miraculously still stands, 200 years after it was constructed at the corner of H Street and Jackson Place, across from the White House on Lafayette Square. Commodore Decatur built the large home after helping lead numerous naval victories against Britain, France and the Barbary States, establishing the United States Navy as a rising power. Decatur House, as it’s now known, was the center of Washington society in the early 19th century, while Decatur himself became an affluent member of that circle, counting James Monroe and other Washington dignitaries as friends and confidants.
In celebration and recognition of the importance of the home both to Washington and American history, the White House Historical Association recently published The Stephen Decatur House: A History ($75), the first comprehensive examination of the house: its occupants, architecture, collections, preservation and evolution from private home to historic site, as well as its many presidential connections. It took four experts—biographer James Tertius de Kay; architectural historians Michael Fazio and Osborne Mackie; and preservationist Katherine Malone-France—to bring the multifaceted history to life. “Because I spent  years along with co-author Patrick Snadon writing the book The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Latrobe, which includes a lengthy analysis of Decatur House, there was not very much room for surprises,” says Fazio when asked if his research led to any reveals. “However, it was something of a revelation to see Bruce White’s photographs, which insightfully capture the spatial qualities of this house, a house that was intended by what we might today call a ‘power couple’ to be a place for large crowds and lavish entertainment.”
View looking west through the apse to the rear hall.
Decatur grew up on the eastern shore, and his wife, Susan Wheeler, the daughter of Luke Wheeler (mayor of Norfolk, Va.), was well known for her beauty and intelligence among Norfolk and Washington society. The two formed an early American dynamic duo.
“Today Washington, DC, is our governmental center, but this was certainly not the case in the early [19th] century after the ravaging of the place by the British during the War of 1812. The construction of their house, in complete isolation on Lafayette Square at the time, was a statement by them about permanence, an endorsement by the country’s first great naval hero and his wife, of the bold democratic experiment that was the United States,” Fazio tells me. Decatur purchased the land on the northwest corner of what was then President’s Park with prize money that he earned for his naval conquests in the War of 1812. In contracting famous English architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the same man who designed the U.S. Capitol building, for the project, Decatur established the first private residence in the White House neighborhood. “Decatur House is interesting for its origins and for the long list of dignitaries who occupied it,” says Fazio. “For those who are inclined to closely study the building’s layout, it is most interesting as an architectural response to early [19th]-century American urban life by the country’s first great professional architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe.” It was also, he notes, “unorthodox in having its original kitchen facing a public square and always intended by the Decaturs to be rentable when they were away for long periods.” Apparently, we can also add that the home was our nation’s first Airbnb.
In 1820, fellow Naval Commodore James Barron challenged Decatur to a duel over comments Decatur made over the loss of Barron’s ship Chesapeake at the hands of the British. Unfortunately for Decatur, as was with Alexander Hamilton, his time was cut short at the losing end of a duel. Yet, his legacy and naval accomplishments live on for all to admire in Decatur House. 748 Jackson Place NW, DC, whitehousehistory.org
Photography by: PHOTOS BY BRUCE M WHITE COURTESY OF THE WHITE HOUSE HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION