June 28, 2018

Behind the Historic Fabric of Washington, D.C.’s Decatur House

In a new book published by the White House Historical Association (WHHA), historians and other experts tell the full story behind Decatur House—a historic home, house museum, and National Trust Historic Site—and its effects on the history of Washington, D.C., as well as the history of the National Trust and the preservation movement as a whole.

Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust, wrote the forward to The Stephen Decatur House: A History, while Katherine Malone-France, Vice President for Historic Sites at the National Trust and former Director of Collections and Programs at Decatur House, wrote a chapter detailing its storied connection to our preservation organization.

We sat down with Malone-France to learn more about the book and Decatur House’s legacy, as well as her own take on the lessons learned from her work at this inspiring and significant historic place

Exterior angle of house with traffic

photo by: Rodney Bailey

The Stephen Decatur House, Washington, D.C.

Tell me about The Stephen Decatur House: A History, and how you and Stephanie became involved in writing for it.

The WHHA came up with the idea for The Stephen Decatur House: A History. Decatur House is a famous and prominent residence of Washington D.C., but it’s also famous and prominent for the National Trust and for preservation in general.

Stewart McLaurin, president of the WHHA, asked me if I would be willing to write a chapter about Decatur House and what that meant for our organization, [as] it was a bequest to the National Trust and our first permanent headquarters. [I also wanted] to think about it in the context of historic sites and house museums, and the part Decatur House played in the preservation movement.

As the book took shape, it very much became a story of preservation, so it became a natural choice for Stewart to ask Stephanie to write the forward that would pull all of that [information] together.

How did the preservation of Decatur House influence the National Trust and strengthen the preservation movement as a whole?

The National Trust was started by Congress in 1949, and in the spring of 1952, Decatur House was bequeathed to us. [When researching for the book], I read a lot of old National Trust board minutes; the National Trust had worked hard to persuade Marie Beale [the owner of the home at the time] that … our core mission is the preservation of places like this. Stewarding this storied property—one of the oldest residences in the neighborhood— right on Lafayette Square was an institutional vote of confidence for us.

Kitchen of Decatur House

Decatur House first opened as a public museum in the 1960s.

Of course, Decatur House is important because it is the birthplace of the National Trust we know today. Our headquarters were there when we had our first study tours and opened our first field offices. Decatur House reminds me of all the different things we do and the different ways we bring people into preservation. But like all good birthplaces, Decatur House also reminds us that we [as preservationists] haven’t always gotten it right. It’s a place to be reminded that we have to focus on telling the full story of a place.

This place has many lessons to teach us as preservationists. Humility is something that we don’t always talk about as a value in preservation, but it is really important. Humility in preservation is about assuming that your tastes and scholarship are not the [be all and end all]. It’s more important to get humble with a building and listen to what it has to tell you.

How has the National Trust found new ways to tell stories about Decatur House?

When I was the Director of Collections and Programs at Decatur House, one of the things I loved the most was being able to look back at 50 years of accumulated scholarship and interpretive plans for the property, some of which we [implemented], and some of which we didn’t.

But starting during my tenure there, it was also important to think about how we tell the full story of this place, particularly related to African Americans, who were enslaved by the households at Decatur House and who worked as paid laborers there. Sometimes this work means taking away the modern fabric so you can get at what historic fabric is left at a particular place. You can strip away modern conventions, and underneath that, buildings have the power to tell their own stories. In the face of destruction—and in the face of people believing that certain stories aren’t as important—places can hold onto their stories until they’re ready to tell them.

“In the face of destruction ... places can hold onto their stories until they’re ready to tell them. ”

Katherine Malone-France

What other stories does Decatur House have to tell?

Decatur House is so representative of the rest of the preservation movement in that it was led by women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even though they were in no way focused on telling their own stories. Marie Beale is a great example of that pattern for Decatur House.

In some ways, Beale was an international preservationist first, and then as she got older she became focused singularly on Decatur House and its legacy. But the legacies of important men were the focus of her preservation projects—Stephen Decatur, her own father, the foreign ministers who lived there, and the larger Lafayette landscape.

Beale’s work foreshadowed what Mrs. Kennedy would later go on to do. Beale gave Decatur House to the National Trust as her preservation beachhead, and Mrs. Kennedy picked up her cause at the beginning of her husband’s administration. She and David Finley went on to found the WHHA. It’s such an important story of American preservation, and the through line is women.

What do you find most inspiring about your time at Decatur House?

For one of the projects I was involved with at Decatur House, we were stripping away all of the modern drywall, carpeting, and flooring from the first- and second-floor slave quarters to see what had remained. These rooms hadn’t been well-documented when the Trust first remodeled the building.

When everything was all pulled back, we learned that the extraordinary painted floor now on the second floor of Decatur House is the same floor used for the slave quarters. It had been painted and repainted many times, and it bears the ghost marks of not just the room, but the people who were living there, too. The framing wall that shows you where the hallway and the other rooms were remains. The ghost marks of mantels and of plaster also remain, showing the level of destruction that affected those rooms’ original historic fabric.

[Compared to] when the National Trust remodeled those spaces in the 1960s, we’d make very different choices today, but it struck me that the historic fabric of the slave quarters told not only the stories of those people who lived there … but also the stories of those spaces not being appreciated. That was such a lesson in the incredible power that historic buildings have, independent of us as preservationists. Of course we need to preserve these spaces, but buildings hold a certain power to themselves.

The Stephen Decatur House: A History is available for purchase from the White House Historical Association. Order your copy today.

Carson Bear was an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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