May 13, 2015

The Slave Quarters at Decatur House: A Landmark for Preservation and Learning

Decatur House, constructed in 1818 for naval hero Stephen Decatur, was the first residence built on Lafayette Square after the White House and includes an extant ca.1821 urban slave quarters, extending along H Street, Northwest. The structure originally was built as a servant hall with a kitchen, laundry, and dormitory to accommodate the staff of the French mission that leased the property after Decatur’s tragic death in a duel in 1820. During the 19th century, the building was primarily used for workspaces and residences of the enslaved African American household staff. The structure once stood at the heart of a community of free and enslaved African Americans, white tradesmen and artisans, and the elite residents of the Lafayette Square, including the president of the United States.

Preservation work on the slave quarters included conservation of the original wood shingle roof in place below a new slate roof, extensive repairs to the stucco and windows, and repainting of the entire structure. Pictured here is the south elevation. | Credit: White House Historical Association.

The fundamental form, exterior architectural finishes, and the uses of the slave quarters remained relatively unchanged from 1821 until 1965, even as the legal status of its residents and the makeup of the surrounding neighborhood and city changed dramatically. As a rare remaining example of the vernacular architecture of urban slavery once common in the District of Columbia—it offers important evidence of the living and working conditions of the enslaved. Situated less than 150 yards from the White House, the building eloquently conveys the clear and close presence of slavery in the landscape of the American presidency. Attached to one of America’s most storied homes, it simultaneously demonstrates the separation and intimate links between enslaver and enslaved that were intrinsic to the institution of slavery.

The earliest known depiction of a building matching the shape and orientation of the slave quarters that exists today is an outline of the building’s footprint on Albert Boschke’s 1857 survey map of Washington, D.C. The map shows a building joined to the back of Decatur House and extending west along H Street, Northwest. As the slave quarters still does today, the building depicted on the survey map forms the northern boundary of a three-sided compound organized around a central open space.

While Stephen and Susan Decatur did not register as slave owners, we know that there were enslaved men, women, and children living on the property by the late 1820s. In 1836, after leasing the property for more than a decade to foreign missions and cabinet members, Susan Decatur sold the Decatur House property for $12,000 to hotelier John Gadsby. He owned the nearby National Hotel, staffed by skilled enslaved servants. In the 1840 census, the 11 people enslaved in the Gadsby household were the largest population of enslaved people on Lafayette Square.

Family historian Steve Hammond and Craig Syphax, president of Black Heritage in Arlington, discuss the history of Syphax family with Rebecca Sheir, host of WAMU’s “Metro Connection” at Decatur House. Hammond and Syphax are descendants of Nancy Syphax, an enslaved domestic owned by the Gadsby family, who probably lived in the slave quarters from 1836 to until at least 1844. | Credit: White House Historical Association

When John Gadsby died in May 1844, an inventory of his property at Decatur House itemized the furnishings of the “back building,” and they offer the first documentation of the uses of the building, including references to items located in a first floor kitchen and a laundry and “servants rooms” with bedsteads and bedding above. By examining the ghost marks (unpainted strips of flooring that reveal the location of original wall partitions), researchers were able determine the size of the second-floor rooms, which ranged from 150 square feet to 231 square feet, where multiple people likely slept. A large hearth uncovered on the first floor confirms that a substantial kitchen was originally located there.

This inventory concluded with a listing of the people who were owned by Gadsby and who were likely the residents of the slave quarters at the time. Enslaved men, women, and children were listed, including the King and Williams families and a woman named Nancy Syphax, whose descendents would later contact the White House Historical Association to add their stories to the building’s rich history.

The slave quarters at Decatur House ceased to serve as housing for enslaved people before the end of slavery in the District of Columbia in April 1862. In late 1861 the U.S. government took possession of nine lots belonging to the Gadsby estate on and next to Lafayette Square for use as offices and warehouses for the Subsistence Bureau of the Quartermaster General.

The ghost marks of room partitions help students define the spatial volume of the sleeping chambers on the second floor. | Credit: White House Historical Association

During the period of 1872-1966, both black and white servants lived and worked in the building. Over this period, census records indicate that the residents of the building shifted from African Americans to primarily European immigrants by the 1930s. Cesar Scalandaris and his family were the last residents of the slave quarters. They emigrated from Italy to work in the household of Marie Beale, the last private owner of Decatur House. After Beale bequeathed the house to the National Trust, Scalandaris continued working there until 1965.

Conservation of the Slave Quarters

In 2010, in keeping with the careful preservation philosophy for all historic structures at the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History at Decatur House, the White House Historical Association undertook the conservation of the interior and exterior of the slave quarters wing. The work on the interior was especially challenging since the National Trust had converted the slave quarters into a gift shop and offices during the 1960s, demolishing most of the interior features and finishes. Unfortunately, historic preservation practice in that period often did not recognize the significance of vernacular architecture or the architecture of enslavement.

Working with the National Trust, the White House Historical Association determined that it would not reconstruct any interior features that had been lost and that evidence of the interior demolition, such as the ruined condition of the hearths, would remain visible as a part of the building’s story. The primary replacement made in kind was the severely deteriorated slate roof that had been installed ca. 1872. However, the building’s original wood shingle roof that had been encapsulated below the slates was documented and preserved in place.

Educational Programs and Future Interpretation

An educational field trip to the Decatur House slave quarters on the White House Historical Association campus is currently available for grades 7-12. Students examine the history and evolution of Lafayette Square through perspectives of the African American community, free and enslaved, and the interactions of the communities—white and black—in the President's Neighborhood.

The second floor of the slave quarters is conserved and interpreted for grades 7-12 and public tour groups. | Credit: White House Historical Association

During the program, students identify architectural elements that are original to the slave quarters and explore how a building can be used as a primary source. As they examine the building itself in conjunction with other primary sources, such as census records and floor plans from the Historic American Buildings Survey, students are asked to imagine what life might have been like for the men and women who lived there. Seeing the slave quarters has been frequently listed as a highlight for visitors of all ages who have participated in a tour or program. One visitor wrote that she enjoyed uncovering history she was unaware of and that learning about the history of the slave quarters “shows history in a way that helps build empathy for other people.”

Besides traditional learning activities, the association conducts research to depict the conditions and architecture of urban slavery in Washington, D.C. This ongoing research and documentation and examination of historic Decatur House and its slave quarters will continue to reveal the full history of this storied property on the President’s Square.

William B. Bushong, Ph.D. is the vice president and chief historian at the The White House Historical Association.

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By: William B. Bushong

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