Decatur House on Lafayette Square

Historic Site
Through 12/12

Permanent exhibit

Collection of Federalist furnishings and architecture in an 1818 Federal-style townhouse.
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Editorial Review

President's Park, now called Lafayette Park, was a treeless patch of grass across from the White House when Steven Decatur purchased a lot on its highest corner. A gambler of sorts, he bet against other locals who were hesitant to invest in the new federal town's property.

Not everyone was certain the fledgling government would last. But along with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America's first professional architect and engineer, who designed part of the U.S. Capitol and introduced Gothic and Greek revival styles to America, Decatur built a nearly cubic three-story town house, constructed with red brick in the austere Federal fashion of the day. He and his wife, Susan, moved into the house in 1819.

House tours begin in the front-room office where Decatur managed his other real estate holdings. A desk is set up to look as though he'd just stepped out to inspect potential acreage. Across the foyer in the parlor, tables are set for tea and cards. The dining room displays pieces of a silver tea service, Decatur's originals.

This risk-taker had done well. He became a hero fighting Barbary pirates as well as the British in the War of 1812. But his luck ran out when a naval officer, bearing a grudge, killed him in a duel on a Bladensburg field. Decatur had lived on the square only 14 months.

The house tour is just getting cranked up when you hear of Decatur's demise. Susan Decatur, saddled with the house and other debts, moved out and rented the place for the next 15 years. A string of foreign dignitaries lived there first; the house later became the unofficial residence of presiding secretaries of state, including Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren.

Guides share stories about subsequent renters and owners, some of whom left their stamp on the house. Diplomat Truxton Beale and his wife, Marie, the last couple to occupy the house, eventually restored the first floor to the way it appeared in Steven and Susan Decatur's day.

Marie Beale researched Latrobe's original plans to determine how to carry out the partial restoration. Some decorating touches of her own remain on the second floor: Belgian antiques, Italian candlesticks, wall hangings from Japan and the California State seal inlaid on the parquet dining room floor by her in-laws. Marie Beale outlived her husband and lived in the house's two-tiered scheme for several years, managing to stave off government plans for turning Lafayette Square's private homes into offices.

Foreseeing its precarious future, she bequeathed the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has owned the house since 1957, the year after Marie Beale's death. Thanks to Beale, this first and last residence on Lafayette Square still has a corner on the real estate market.

-- Margaret Hutton