Stephen Decatur House
In 1816, Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr and his wife, Susan, moved to Washington DC (then called the Federal City). They bought land on the the Northwest corner of President’s Park, which is today known as Lafayette Square. Decatur was given prize money for his naval contributions during the War of 1812.
The first professional engineer and architect is America, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, was engaged to design a home that was “fit for entertaining.” Once the house was completed in 1818, it was the first private home in the White House neighborhood and was named Decatur House.
The home is an almost three-story townhouse built with red brick in the Federal style that was popular at that time. After the couple moved into the house, they quickly became well known in Washington social circles. But, unfortunately, they had only lived in the house for 14 months when the Commodore was killed in a duel on March 22, 1820 with Commodore James Barron.
After his death, his wife was forced to auction off most of their furnishings and move to a little house in Georgetown. She then rented the Decatur House to several American and foreign dignitaries. From 1827 to 1833, Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren and Edward Livingston used Decatur House as the unofficial residence for secretaries of state. In addition, the house was occupied by several free and enslaved servants who helped play major roles in American history. For example, there was Charlotte Dupuy, a woman who was enslaved by Henry Clay, who sued him for her freedom while she was living in the house in 1829.
Finally, Susan Decatur sold the home in 1836 because of her heavy debt. It was purchased by John Gadsby, a rich tavern and hotel owner who also owned the well known National Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1821, Gadsby built a two-story wing along H Street, NW for the servants of the then-tenant, French minister Baron Hyde de Neuville. Later, three generations of Gadsby slaves lived in this wing of the house.
In 1872, General Edward Beale of California bought the townhouse. He was known for establishing the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. He also was appointed ambassador to Austria-Hungary by Ulysses S. Grant. After their purchase, General Beale and his wife, Mary, redecorated the house and made it into a Victorian showpiece. They added gas chandeliers and lovely parquet floors in the second floor parlors where they loved to entertain the elite of Washington. After Beale’s death, the house was inherited by his son, Truxtun Beale, who was ambassador to Romania and Persia.
Ultimately, in 1956, Decatur House was given to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This was able to save both Decatur House and many of the other historic buildings that were located on Lafayette Square. The house was opened as a museum in the early 1960s and is now the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History.