The Decatur House is one of the last remaining creations of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America’s first professional architect. Located in central Washington, D.C., the Decatur House is a historic home built by Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr., in 1818, and it is one of the oldest historic homes in the area still standing. Designed with entertaining guests in mind, the Decatur House’s spacious quarters were lavishly furnished, and the home would change hands numerous times over the course of a century. It was converted into a public museum in the 1960s, and since 2010, it has served as the headquarters of the National Center for White House History.
Backstory and Context
In 1816, Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr., accompanied by his wife, Susan Decatur, moved to Washington, D.C. A veteran of both the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812, Decatur had acquired a large sum of prize money for his wartime efforts, and together with his wife, they bought land in what is now Lafayette Square. As they wanted a grand house to entertain guests with, they sent for architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design their home. Not long after completion of the home in 1818, the Decaturs held several parties for the elite of Washington, D.C., and their popularity in the area grew as a result. The couple only lived in the home for 14 months, however, due to Stephen’s untimely death on March 22, 1820, in a duel against Commodore James Barron. Shortly afterwards, Susan moved to Georgetown and rented out the house over the following 15 years; between 1834 and 1836, for example, the British Embassy rented the house. In 1836, Susan was forced to sell the house in order to pay numerous debts she had incurred.
Over the following decades, Decatur House changed hands numerous times, serving initially as a retirement home beginning in 1836. After the death of its proprietor, John Gadsby, in 1844, his wife Providence rented the building out. When the American Civil War began, it was commandeered by the federal government to help with the war effort. Following the Civil War, California General Edward Beale bought the building in 1872 and converted it back into a home for himself and his family. Decatur House remained in the possession of the Beale family for 84 years, until Edward's daughter-in-law, Marie Beale, gave the building to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1956.
In the early 1960s, the house opened to the public as a museum. It is now operated by the White House Historical Association and is home to the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History, which was opened in 2010. The Center houses documentation, supports research efforts and provides education programs involving the history of the White House. It is also available for conferences, parties, receptions, weddings and more.
"Decatur House." National Trust for Historic Preservation. 2016. Accessed July 21, 2016. https://savingplaces.org/places/decatur-house#.VmXjsr9QD20.0
"The Historic Decatur House." The White House Historical Association. Accessed July 21, 2016. https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-historic-decatur-house