Preservation Magazine, Summer 2018

A Seaworthy Desk Finds Safe Harbor at Decatur House

For decades, Commodore Stephen Decatur’s slant-front desk passed from owner to owner, some unaware of its connection to one of the most influential naval officers in United States history. But in 2012 one of those owners—Canadian auctioneer Tim Isaac of Saint John, New Brunswick—uncovered documents that traced the piece back to Decatur.

Decatur used the circa-1770 desk aboard the USS United States during the War of 1812. It may have been the surface upon which he wrote his report on the capture of the HMS Macedonian, an achievement that further cemented his reputation. Soon after, Decatur gifted the desk to 1st Lt. William H. Allen for his contributions in battle. It remained in the Allen family until 1885, the first of eight changes of hands.

Once Isaac had established its historical significance, he sold the desk to William Bensen, an Ontario naval antiques collector, who donated the desk to Government House in New Brunswick. Though the desk would be safely preserved there, Bensen hoped to someday return it to its native country. Years of discussion among Tim Richardson (principal secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick) and representives from Global Affairs Canada, the U.S. Department of State, and the White House Historical Association (WHHA) resulted in the desk’s arrival at Decatur House, a National Trust Historic Site in Washington, D.C., in February.

The slant desk formerly belonging to Commodore Stephen Decatur.

photo by: Bruce M. White/White House Historical Association

Documents connecting the desk to Commodore Stephen Decatur were found in its hidden drawers.

Despite its well-traveled history, the mahogany desk remains in remarkable condition. The identity of its maker is unknown, but the desk’s design suggests American roots, with horizontal backboards and pine drawer bottoms that set it apart from typical British construction. It retains original brass locks, pulls, and hinges on the pigeonhole drawers. The blocking on the desk bottom combines original and refurbished elements.

“Although the desk never resided in the Decatur House parlors [during Decatur’s life], there’s something truly auspicious about its final resting place being here, surrounded by several historically significant Decatur objects,” says Julianne Levin, public programs and collections manager with the WHHA, which operates Decatur House. The association is publishing a book this summer called The Stephen Decatur House: A History, which will feature the desk.

Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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