History of the Home of the Commandants
By Jura Koncius,
The Home of the Commandants on Capitol Hill is one of the oldest continuously occupied buildings in Washington. Home to all but two of the 35 Marine Corps commandants, the Federal-style residence at 8th and G streets SE is full of antiques and Marine lore.
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson rode on horseback to scout a site to serve as the Marine Barracks and commandant’s living quarters. The spot chosen was within marching distance of the Navy Yard and the Capitol should Marines be needed to respond to a crisis. The original 1806 two-story, eight-room house has been expanded over the years. The house is now 30 rooms surrounded by formal gardens overlooking the Marine parade deck.
The home was one of a few major Washington buildings not burned by the British in the War of 1812. The barracks, which once housed 500 Marines, now are administrative offices and the offices of “The Commandant’s Own” U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band, which has played for every president since John Adams. Composer John Philip Sousa served as the Marine Band director from 1880 to 1892. Sousa’s eyeglasses, baton and flask are displayed in the home’s music room.
The house is furnished mainly with antiques. Official portraits of all former commandants except one hang throughout the residence. Many furnishings and artworks were given by former commandants. Over the years, a nonprofit group, Friends of the Home of the Commandants, has paid for renovations and furnishings, including the red, white and blue carpet woven with the official seal and other symbols of the Marines.
In November 2010, the house underwent a six-month, $4.1 million renovation to address serious structural issues involving deterioration of brick and mortar and to overhaul antiquated systems. More than 30 layers of exterior paint and 10 layers of primer were stripped off.
It was not a moment too soon. Repairs were completed a few months before an earthquake hit Washington on Aug. 23, 2011. On that day, two aides were the only ones in the house. Everything started shaking, including a 1920s bronze Tiffany floor lamp with a green and blue dragonfly glass shade, a gift from the Sousa family. According to Bonnie Amos, who was at a carwash at the time, “Staff Sergeant Scott Zabel was not worried about himself in the earthquake, but fell on the floor by the Tiffany lamp and held it until the rumbling was over. I told him him the rescue deserved a medal.”
All in a day’s work for a Marine whose motto is Semper Fi, always faithful.
The Home of the Commandants has no regularly scheduled public tours. But it is often open to the public as part of the Barracks Row Fall Festival.