Behind-the-Scenes special! Decatur House

In Behind-the-Scenes, Historic Houses on May 9, 2011 at 4:00 am

There is nothing in this world that makes a dork like myself  as happy as behind-the-scenes heritage, except behind-the-scenes heritage  within spitting distance of the White House…

I have briefly mentioned the Almighty NPS as the reason I am in DC – very true. As well as volunteering a  smidge for them, my ever-so-lovely boss is catering to my love of historic houses, and invited me on a behind-the-scenes tour of Decatur House on LaFayette Square. Decatur was built in 1818, and was the first residential building in the vicinity. The owner, Stephen Decatur, commissioned the famous architect Benjamin Latrobe, he of Capitol fame (who was also, whisper it, British-born!) to build him a splendid party house close to the White House (he was a friend of General Grant, apparently. You know what? Not enough people are called Ulysses these days. We need to bring that back.).

It’s a gorgeous redbrick building, and it really is right on the square, but is currently closed to the public whilst some extensive renovation and conservation work is going on. It has some  gorgeous interiors despite being a work-in-progress, and is often used for local events (Which are a bigger deal than your common-or-garden WI meetings – Presidents from Kennedy to Obama have attended evening parties here). The entrance hall is  a beautiful example:

The approach they are taking at Decatur is to take it back to its original finishes as far as possible, i.e. to 1818. There are some bits and bobs that will have to stay (the house has a long history as a residence of private citizens, secretaries of state and as a federal building) and here, the loud-yet-lovely carpet is what will be replacing the painted wooden floor (which is being covered for its own protection).

Upstairs, the Decaturs and their successors went to town on entertainment space.  I love the landing almost as much as the entrance hall – I am a sucker for plain paintwork in an impressive space (there isn’t enough minimalism in heritage, I think…).

The party rooms are just as fabulous – the ceiling is 1940s (and much hated by everyone else in the party – I was kind of indifferent. It’s no Tredegar House ceiling, mind…) but the rest is going back to 1818. One fan-flippin-tastic detail that has survived against the odds are the door handles – not half so boring as door handles usually are!

Through the next room we get the most fabulous wooden floor. It is one of the post-1818 additions that will be remaining in-situ – it has the seal of California in the middle from General Edward Beale’s tenancy, which caused a minor diplomatic row recently (all because a tour guide got their facts wrong about it being removed! Bloody typical. Never trust a tour guide.)

After this room, was a very interesting bit of house, and one that brought to light a difference between UK and US historic houses that had not yet occurred to me. I’m quite used to servants quarters, but Decatur has a slave annexe…

Much the same as servants quarters (and later in time, they became such) but I just hadn’t thought of the difference before.

The tour of Decatur was excellent –  Catherine, our guide, had an infectious enthusiasm for the place and what it will look like when it is finished – I would love to return and see the efforts of this pretty major restoration. It’s operated by the White House Historical Association, who will be opening the house again in the future, and I would say that you need to make a visit when it does. It has a fascinating political history as well as a social one. No one makes a trip too DC without visiting the White House, and as Decatur is just under a block away, then you have no excuse whatsoever to miss it.

  1. I’ve just loved this write-up LK. The building looks absolutely beautiful – and (from the exterior) not unlike my old school (Heathfield House). How lovely that Catherine was able to take you to see it.

    • Heathfield????? Yes I do see a (very small) similarity. well done Jen on bringing back some horrible memories xxx

  2. […] to the State Legislature, and had no need for a home in the capital of Maryland any more. As with Decatur and Belmont, this was designed as party house really. I have no idea how anyone ever gets anything […]

  3. […] history lesson – The Capitol was laid out by architect Benjamin Latrobe (you all know him from Decatur House) and at some point, like much of Washington, was torched by the British (which makes visiting all […]

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