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Determining the Facts

Reading 4: Decatur House Lives On

Although Decatur lived in the home he built in Washington, D.C. for only a year, it continues to be called by his name. As one of his biographers noted in 1938, "Stephen Decatur was one of the most romantic characters in American history...From the year of his birth down to that of his untimely death, a romantic glamour rested upon him. Like a faint, lingering odour of incense, an abiding trace of that glamour still attaches to the house he built."1

From 1820 until 1836, Susan Decatur rented the house to a long series of important political figures. Her first tenant was Baron Hyde de Neuville, the French minister and consul-general to the United States. The Baron and Baroness were very hospitable people, much given to entertaining, which they did exceedingly well. The next tenant was Baron de Tuyll, the Russian minister, who did not entertain as much as his brother diplomats, but who did give excellent dinner parties. On Washington and food, he commented, "Washington, with its venison, wild turkeys, canvas-backs, oysters, terrapins, &c., furnishes better viands [foods] than Paris, and only wants cooks."2

During the presidency of John Quincy Adams, the house was rented to Secretary of State Henry Clay, a prominent Whig and three times an unsuccessful candidate for president between 1824 and 1844. In the winter of 1828 a Washington resident wrote, "Mrs. C— is overwhelmed with company, besides a very large dining company every week and a drawing-room every other week. She says when Mr. C dines at home, he never dines alone but always has a social company in a family dinner, which however is really the trouble of a large one. She is obliged to go to other people's parties, sick or well, for fear of giving offence [sic], a thing more carefully avoided now than ever."3

In 1836 Susan Decatur finally sold the house on Lafayette Park to John Gadsby, a hotel owner and businessman. Although Decatur House remained an elegant setting for parties, the type of people who were entertained began to change. The French minister of the time wrote, "Some days ago I went to an evening party at Mr. Gadsby's. He is an old wretch who has made a fortune in the slave trade, which does not prevent Washington society from rushing to his house, and I should make my government very unpopular if I refused to associate with this kind of people. The gentleman's house is the most beautiful in the city, very well furnished, and perfect in the distribution of the rooms, but the society, my God!"4

After Gadsby's death in 1844, his widow rented out the house as Susan Decatur once had, and it continued to be the home of many illustrious people. During the Civil War the Federal Government took over Decatur House for use as office space. In 1871, General Edward Beale and his wife Mary bought Decatur House. They spent much time and money repairing damage done during the Civil War years, and remodeling the house to conform to the more ornate Victorian style of the Reconstruction years. Beale was a well-known character of his time. He carried the news of the California gold strike to Washington in 1848, fought with Kit Carson, scouted wagon roads and railroads in the West, and experimented with using camels as transport animals in the desert regions of the West.

In 1902, after the deaths of both General Beale and his wife, the house passed to their son Truxtun. Mrs. Beale became known as a generous and attentive hostess. Each year following the Christmas reception for the diplomatic corps at the White House, she held a party for the diplomats, and during Prohibition the Beale's well-stocked wine cellar outshone that in the White House. After her husband's death in 1936, Marie Beale remained at Decatur House for 20 more years. Upon her death in 1956, the Decatur House was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The building is now a historic house museum, but receptions and parties continue to be held there.

Questions for Reading 4

1. What happened to Decatur House after the death of Stephen Decatur?

2. Why did the French Minister disapprove of John Gadsby?

3. Why do you think the government took over several houses on Lafayette Park during the Civil War?

4. Why do you think so many important people wanted to live in or be entertained at Decatur House?

Reading 4 was adapted from Harold Donaldson Eberlein and Courtland VanDyke Hubbard, Historic Houses of George-Town & Washington City (Richmond, VA: Dietz Press, Incorporated, 1938); a study by Phillips & Oppermann, P.A., Initial Investigations of Decatur House, for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington D.C., Volume I Summary, 1991; and Excerpt from the Development Plan for the Decatur House, prepared for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, by Francis D. Lethbridge and Associates, 1980.

1As quoted in Eberlein and Hubbard, Historic Houses of George-Town & Washington City (Richmond, Virginia: The Dietz Press, Incorporated, 1938) p. 259.
2As quoted in Eberlein and Hubbard, p. 266.
3As quoted in Eberlein and Hubbard, p. 267.
4As quoted in Eberlein and Hubbard, p. 271.

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