History #101

History #101

Photo credit: Janet Donovan

“Tonight we celebrate the most recent book and publication in that long line of publications that we’ve undertaken since 1961. Tonight we focus on The Stephen Decatur House: A History.  This is not just a beautiful book, and I happen to think it’s perhaps the most beautiful book that we’ve ever published, it comes from four different perspectives taking on this topic: There are the Decaturs, Steven and Susan Decatur; there are the others who lived there, and that’s quite a cast of characters that you’ll hear about tonight. There’s the architect Benjamin Latrobe, and there’s the collection itself. This book tells a great part of the story through the collection that we are privileged to maintain here,” said Stewart McLaurin, President of the White House Historical Association in his opening remarks that also celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the historic Decatur House.

The private event featured a panel discussion with the book’s four authors, tours of the house, a book signing, a display of rare objects from the Decatur and Beale family collections, and drinks and hors d’oeuvres inspired by a recipe book put together by the wife of the home’s architect.

“It’s my privilege to welcome you here this evening to the historic Decatur House. From this historic home, the White House Historical Association operates and executes our mission that was inspired by our founder former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy 57 years ago this year,” explained McLaurin. “We are honored to be trusted with Decatur House through a long term co-stewardship agreement with our dear and wonderful friends of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and one of our presenters is from the National Trust. We have high regard and deep respect for you and your work and are honored to collaborate with you in this important way.”

Stewart McLaurin

“Since 1961 by our founder by Mrs. Kennedy, we’ve had the privilege of working with every President and First Lady as we provide a non-government funding support for the conservation to the museum standard of those beautiful staterooms.  We assist in acquiring art and furnishing for the permanent White House collection,” he added. “Since Mrs. Kennedy’s push for us to publish our very first book in 1962, which was the guide book – the first White House guide book – we have published dozens of books and titles. In fact, this year alone we will publish six books related to the White House as well as our quarterly journal which is on an array of topics. The next one that’s out in just about a week’s time is on presidential sites. We’ll be convening over 100 presidential sites from across the country here to Washington later in August. Those will be presidential workplaces, childhood homes, museums and libraries. It’ll be a wonderful occasion for us.”

Katherine Malone-France with Knight Kiplinger

He went on to recognize some members of the Board of Directors: Gail West, Knight Kiplinger, Cathy Gorn, Jeannine Smith Clark “whose inspirational leadership in our governance of our work has been really important to us and we really value and treasure their guidance and counsel to us every day.” After introducing other collaborators, he acknowledged former Chief of Protocol Lucky Roosevelt. “So these are sacred partnerships to us, we’ve worked very closely with them on a day to day basis and we appreciate them being here tonight to be supporting of us on this occasion.”

Lucky Roosevelt (L)

He introduced the panelists/authors: James Tertius McKay, author of numerous naval histories and a renowned biography of Stephen Decatur and Decatur’s naval accomplishments. Michael Fazio, an architect and expert on Benjamin Latrobe who is also one of the faculty at Mississippi State University, offered some architectural history of Decatur House. Osborne Mackey is a lawyer and appraiser of fine decorative arts. He produced a substantive illustrated catalog of the Fine and Decorative Arts Collection, and in the book, Osborne tells a story of the inhabitants of the house through their belongings. Catherine Malone Francis is the senior vice president for historic sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Her significant contribution of this book focuses on the evolution of this house from a private home to historic site.

Panelists: Osbourne Mackey (not pictured), Katherine Malone-France, Michael Fazio, James Tertius de Kay

“So my first question is for everyone in the group to dive in. 218 years ago this year, one of the most famous houses in the world – The White House – opened across the street with its occupants John and Abigail Adams. And then 18 years later, in 1818, the new kids on the block Stephen and Susan Decatur built and moved into this house. They lived here for just a short time, but the house still bears their name, the Decatur House. What’s important about them, and what’s important about this house to the President’s neighborhood and the city of Washington?” asked McLaurin.

Osbourne Mackey, Katherine Malone-France, Michael Fazio

“I would say the first thing, when this house was built after the White House, is that it was the most princely house in Washington. It would be like the City Palace to Washington as opposed to the art in Venice; so it was a house that staggered by its architecture. That’s the first point I would make.” Osbourne Mackey.

Katherine Malone-France

“I think you know also you had the White House and then you had St. Johns, designed by Benjamin Latrobe, and then you had Decatur House built here. And those were significant too, right? Around this landscape that would become sort of the People’s Park on one side would be the government, and one side would be the church, and on one side of it you had the people and the military in some ways. So Decatur House has always been a sort of abstraction in that way. It’s always stood for more than just a house.” Katherine Malone-France.

“Also, we take for granted this monumental city that we have now wasn’t even a sure thing that the Capital was gonna stay. So when people like Stephen Decatur, who was a big real estate investor [who] built prominently, it gave confidence to the larger population then.”  Michael Fazio.

Michael Fazio

“I think the thing that fascinates me about Decatur House more than anything is what an extraordinary picture it gives you of my hero Stephen Decatur. I think the idea that when you started in the Navy in the old days, you would approach the battle and you had to get into the ‘weather gauge.’ You wanted the wind behind you because otherwise you were gonna be pushed around by the wind as well as your enemy. The fact that he picked this particular spot to build his house is fascinating. The fact that he built it deliberately to give parties and to entertain broadly, he knew what he was doing. He was aiming very definitely for the White House himself.”

James Tertius de Kay

“Let’s talk a little bit about what might have been if Stephen Decatur had not accepted the persistent challenge to the duel,” said McLaurin.  The fascinating and spirited dialogue went on for about an hour so let’s just say that the ‘rest is history’ and you can read all about it here.