The Decatur House

Have you ever been in the Decatur House?  Neither had I, until yesterday.

If you’ve ever taken a stroll through Lafayette Square, you’ve probably glanced at it before.  It’s among the oldest houses in Washington, DC and it’s the current home of the White House Historical Association (great gift shop by-the-way).  This past weekend, Twitter announced that the house was offering tours on Monday, so I decided to take advantage.

Before walking inside, I took some free time and relaxed in the park, sitting on a bench and staring at the North Lawn of the White House.  I still can’t understand how that nut who jumped the fence managed to actually get into the mansion.  I had the distinct feeling that were I to try it, I wouldn’t be so successful.  I’m slightly pigeon toed and not very fleet-of-foot.  

Where was I? 

Stephen Decatur remains youngest American in the history of the navy ever elevated to the rank of Captain.   

I made it for the last tour of the day at 2PM.  Lori and Cam were my guides.  It was just me, so I got to pester them with all the questions I wanted.  They were lovely and obviously passionate about their jobs.  My favorite part was the biography of the builder and original owner of the house, Stephen Decatur.  I’d heard the name before and knew he was a naval hero of some sort, but it turns out that he, much like Ron Burgundy, was kind of a big deal.  

Stephen Decatur holds the distinction of being the youngest man ever to hold the rank of Captain in the United States Navy having received his promotion at the tender age of 25.  He achieved national fame for his exploits during the First Barbary War (a conflict brilliantly explained by the late, great Christopher Hitchens as our first encounter with radical Islam) for the recapture and burning of the USS Philadelphia.  He then followed this up with a brilliant ship-to-ship victory during the War of 1812 when his vessel, the USS United States, defeated and captured the HMS Macedonian following an epic sea battle.  Decatur was a national hero, similar in stature to fellow captain James T. Kirk.

Using prize money won during the war, Decatur afterwards brought his wife Susan to DC and built a grand home for the couple within a stone’s throw of the President’s house - at the time the first non-presidential residence in the neighborhood.  At last the Monroes had somewhere to go if they needed a cup of sugar!

The USS United States conquers the HMS Macedonian.  Huzzah!  

Decatur met his end in a duel some years later, but the house he built remains standing. Ownership would change hands twice and the home remained a private residence until 1956, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation assumed control.  Now it’s a museum, classroom and event space with a rich history and gorgeous early American interior.  The inside is full of beautiful molding, colorful walls, gorgeous wood inlay - the kind of stuff that used to send Bob Villa into paroxysms of joy during episodes of This Old House.  There’s a vibrant painting of the goddess Diana in the upstairs reception room while the California Room has the Sunshine State’s seal ornately rendered into the wood flooring underneath your feet. 

Admission is free and the house is open for tours on Monday.  It’s well worth a visit.  Thanks again to Cam and Lori.

After leaving the Decatur House I stopped by the National Portrait Gallery on my way to work to see the new(ish) Civil War 150 exhibit on the intertwined lives of Grant & Lee.  The two men were a study in contrast - breeding, stature, tactics & strategy, general worldview.  The exhibit exists to explore this contrast and discusses how the two men struggled to overcome one another during the Civil War’s bloody closing act.  The dueling death masks of the two great generals are on display and were my personal highlight - reason enough for any interested American to schedule a stopover!