I’ve often wondered what’s up with the houses around Lafayette Square, the park just to the north of the White House. The handsome row homes seem completely out of place in downtown D.C., and there are no conspicuous signs detailing the buildings’ use today. So I was excited to find out that one of them, known as the Decatur House, is open for free tours on Mondays.
“Does anyone here know who Stephen Decatur Jr. was?” our tour guide asked. I and my three fellow tourists shrugged, looking vaguely embarrassed. “That’s OK,” the guide said. “I didn’t know who he was before I started working here.”
She explained that Decatur was a Navy commander famous for two daring acts. In 1804, after a ship he was serving on was captured by pirates, he led a crew who snuck back on and burned the ship to keep it from being used against the U.S. Later, during the War of 1812, Decatur captured a British ship and brought it back to America to be refurbished and used against the British.
“The U.S. Congress awarded Decatur prize money with that capture, and with that prize money Decatur built this house,” our guide said.
She began listing the people who lived in the house and the years they lived there, and I kinda zoned out. I later found out that our tour guide had really buried the lead. Decatur bled to death in the very room we were peering into!
I discovered this after the tour while reading “The Stephen Decatur House: A History,” a book recently published by the White House Historical Association, the group that oversees the Decatur House and runs its tours. As it turns out, the dashing Navy commander lived in his grand new home for only 14 months before he was killed in a duel in 1820.
“Smears of blood on the door jamb and along the corridor walls inside showed where, only minutes before, the wounded man had been carried through to the reception room on the ground floor,” section author James Tertius de Kay writes in the book.
Decatur had been shot by James Barron, a fellow Navy officer whom Decatur considered a mentor and father figure early in his career. Their relationship went south when Decatur called Barron a coward for sitting out the War of 1812.
Instead of pointing to the walls that were once smeared with our hero’s blood, our guide noted some of the house’s cool architectural details, including a little button of ivory in a staircase banister, and a British coin turned upside down in a brass door fixture.
“It’s a way of thumbing your nose at the British,” she said.
As we headed to the second floor, our guide explained that Decatur’s house was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was also the architect of the U.S. Capitol. Like many Federal-style buildings, the Decatur House is relentlessly symmetrical. For instance, on the second-floor staircase landing, there’s a fake door — its only purpose is to mirror the real door on the other side of the room. Latrobe also designed the house so that the areas where servants and enslaved people worked were kept out of sight of guests and family members.
Decatur didn’t own slaves himself but, around 1822, a subsequent owner of the home built an addition for enslaved people to live in, our guide said as she showed us into a plain room to the west of the main house.
She told us a fascinating story about one enslaved woman who lived there — Charlotte Dupuy, who sued her owner, Secretary of State and later Decatur House resident Henry Clay, for her freedom in 1829. She lost the case, but somehow she wore Clay down, and he released Dupuy and her daughter from servitude in 1840 (though Dupuy’s son remained enslaved by Clay for four more years).
What a brave woman, to stand up to someone so much more powerful than herself. The details of what inspired her to take her case to court, or how she finally won out, are lost to history, our guide said. I’m just glad the home where Dupuy once lived is still around, a testament to her bravery as well as that of the home’s more famous original owner.
The tour was winding down, so I asked our guide my burning question: Who lives in the other row houses on the block?
“They’re all government offices now,” she said, adding that, in the 1960s, the federal government wanted to tear them all down, including Decatur House, and build big, modern office buildings. Luckily, Jackie Kennedy championed an alternative plan that preserved the old row houses, reused them as government offices and hid modern government buildings behind them, she said.
I was a little disappointed to learn that Lafayette Square today is home only to boring government offices, and not to rich and powerful people who throw great parties and sometimes murder one another, as it once was. But I’m thankful to Jackie Kennedy for saving Decatur House and its neighbors, and keeping that colorful history alive.
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