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Decatur House

Decatur House, built in 1818, was the first private residence in the White House neighborhood. In 1956, Marie Oge Beale donated it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Now a historic house museum, Decatur House’s collection preserves the history of the building itself and reflects the influence of its many distinguished residents.

The functions at Decatur House became an institution unique in Washington society.

Helen Duprey Bullock and Terry B. Morton

Marie Chase Oge was born in San Rafael, California, on December 2, 1880. The daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William L. Oge, Marie was the great-granddaughter of Philander Chase, bishop of the Anglican Episcopal Church and founder of Kenyon College. She was also grandniece to Salmon P. Chase, a former chief justice of the United States.“Mrs. Beale, Donor of Decatur House,” New York Times, June 12, 1956. https://www.nytimes.com/1956/06/12/archives/mrs-beale-donor-of-decatur-house-widow-of-truxtun-beale-diplomat.html. Marie Oge’s childhood in the mission town of San Rafael left her with “a lifelong affection for the culture of Spanish America.”Marie Beale, Decatur House and Its Inhabitants (Washington, DC: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1954), 135. She identified these first years of her life as essential in instilling not only a general appreciation for history, but also a belief in the necessity of the preservation of historic sites.

Truxtun Beale, son of Mary Edwards Beale and General Edward Fitzgerald Beale, was given sole ownership of Decatur House in 1902, upon the death of his mother.Helen Duprey Bullock and Terry B. Morton, Decatur House (Washington, DC: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1967), 83. The former US minister to Persia and an adventurous, widely traveled man, Beale found life in the capital to be too constraining. When he returned to the United States after extensive travel abroad, he elected to settle in California instead of Washington, DC. He lived on the Tejon ranch property, also inherited after the death of his parents.Bullock and Morton, Decatur House, 83. It was during this time that he became acquainted with and soon romantically linked to Marie Chase Oge.

Their relationship began with scandal, when Truxtun Beale and his friend Thomas W. Williams Jr., president of the California Jockey Club, were involved in an altercation with San Francisco newspaper editor Frederick Marriot on September 4, 1902.“Truxtun Beale Married,” New York Times, April 24, 1903, https://www.nytimes.com/1903/04/24/archives/truxtun-beale-married-miss-marie-oge-the-bride-of-the-exminister-to.html. Beale and Williams alleged that Marriot had published a newspaper article that reported untruthful and unfavorable information about Marie Oge. The men went to Marriot’s house to demand a retraction, and when he did not comply, they shot him three times. Both Beale and Williams were arrested, but as Marriot survived the incident the two were ultimately acquitted.“Truxtun Beale Married.” Ms. Beale herself dismissed the incident as causing only “a short-term sensation,” and indeed, the couple’s warm reception in Washington seems to suggest that the affair did not leave an indelible mark on the reputation of either Truxtun Beale or Marie Oge.Beale, Decatur House, 128.

On April 23, 1903, Marie Chase Oge was married to Truxtun Beale in New York. The ceremony was a small one, with only family and close friends in attendance.“Pretty Marie Oge Becomes the Wife of Truxtun Beale,” San Francisco Call, April 24, 1903, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=SFC19030424.2.69. Their marriage was, however, widely publicized in newspapers on both coasts; the New York Times wrote, when they announced their engagement the previous October, that it “created much surprise, as both are very prominent in local society.”“Truxtun Beale to Wed,” New York Times, October 23, 1902. https://www.nytimes.com/1902/10/23/archives/truxtun-beale-to-wed.html. After their wedding, the new couple debuted in Washington society, where they were welcomed into the city’s elite circles. The Beales soon made Decatur House their primary residence. Although for the first years of their marriage they split their time between Decatur House and the Tejon ranch property in California, the pair’s interests were increasingly centered in Washington.Beale, Decatur House, 129. Finally, in 1912, they sold their property in California and came to reside full-time in Lafayette Square.Beale, Decatur House, 130.

Decatur House was built in 1818 for Commodore Stephen Decatur Jr. and his wife Susan Decatur.“The Historic Decatur House,” White House Historical Association, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-historic-decatur-house. A naval hero, Decatur financed the construction with the prize money he had received from his illustrious career in the military. The Decaturs commissioned famed architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who also designed St. John’s Church and portions of the White House, to develop the plans for their home in Lafayette Square. Decatur House was the first private home in the presidential neighborhood, and soon after its construction, it became a gathering place for prominent members of Washington society.“The Historic Decatur House,” White House Historical Association.

Unfortunately, the Decaturs’ time in their new home was short-lived—after only 14 months, Stephen Decatur was fatally wounded in a duel and died in the library of the house on March 22, 1820.“The Historic Decatur House,” White House Historical Association. After his passing, Susan Decatur left Lafayette Square and moved to a small house in Georgetown. In her absence, Decatur House hosted a series of foreign and American dignitaries, who rented it from Susan Decatur short-term. From 1827 to 1833, Decatur House became the unofficial residence of the Secretary of State; its renters include Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, and Edward Livingston.“The Historic Decatur House,” White House Historical Association. Unable to shoulder the financial burden of owning the Decatur House, however, Susan Decatur was eventually forced to sell the property in 1836. After a series of other owners and renters, Decatur House passed to the Beale family in 1872. The home would remain in Beale ownership for the next 84 years, making them the second family to significantly influence the character and reputation of Decatur House. Some, in fact, believe it could fairly be renamed the Decatur-Beale House to reflect the contribution of the family.Bullock and Morton, Decatur House, 81.

Truxtun and Marie Beale’s occupation of Decatur House, therefore, came with a rich history and corresponding set of expectations. Stephen and Susan Decatur had initially requested a house “fit for entertaining,” and since its construction Decatur House had been a social space for the Washington elite.“The Historic Decatur House,” White House Historical Association. In the 20th century, this precedent was not only followed, but in fact far surpassed. Under the watchful eye of Marie Beale, “the functions at Decatur House became an institution unique in Washington society.”Bullock and Morton, Decatur House, 84. The residence hosted a gathering annually after the Diplomatic Reception at the White House, which was one of the most anticipated and exclusive social events of the season. Functions like these, by the late 1930s, had taken on a quasi-official status, and Decatur House cemented its place as an essential feature of both the political and social landscapes of Washington, DC.Bullock and Morton, Decatur House, 85.

Marie Beale was, as a hostess and organizer, formidable. Every event she hosted in Decatur House was meticulously planned, and she kept detailed logs about each gathering. For any given event, “the date, the occasion, the number of guests invited, the menu, the seating plan, the table settings, the extra help needed, and in some cases the actual grocery list were all noted.”Bullock and Morton, Decatur House, 85. Her notebooks are preserved in Decatur House, offering visitors a glimpse of the immense coordination and planning required to host a function of that scale. Marie Beale put no less effort into arranging the smaller gatherings she often held at Decatur House; dinners, luncheons, and teas were all executed with grace and precision. With the guidance of Marie Beale, Decatur House dominated the Washington social scene for decades.

Marie Beale was close friends with Mildred Barnes Bliss, who, with her husband Robert Woods Bliss, created Dumbarton Oaks. In 1931, Marie Beale visited the Blisses in Argentina, while he was serving as the US ambassador.Beale, Decatur House, 136. Marie Beale, Mildred Bliss, and Virginia Murray Bacon were together known in Washington society as “the three B’s.”Donna Evers, “The Three B’s,” Washington Life Magazine, March 1, 2009, http://washingtonlife.com/2009/03/01/the-three-b%e2%80%99s/. From the 1920s to the 1960s, these three women were the most important hostesses in the city. An adage of the era suggested that when you arrived in Washington, you paid your respects first to the three B’s and then at the White House.Evers, “Three B’s.” Marie Beale was a recurring character in the correspondence of Mildred and Robert Bliss. These letters, now digitized on the Dumbarton Oaks website, give a sense of the relationships between the prominent Washington families and the intersections between political and social circles.https://www.doaks.org/resources/bliss-tyler-correspondence.

Robert Woods Bliss was also instrumental in fostering Marie Beale’s interest in the early culture and artwork of the Americas. Her childhood in California offered her first exposure to what she called “the Spanish background of the early settlement of America.”Beale, Decatur House, 136. Her travels through Latin America later in life, including her visit to the Blisses in Argentina, offered further context and encouraged her to explore these cultures more thoroughly. In 1933, she wrote a book entitled Flight into America’s Past about her time in South and Central America. With the help of Robert Bliss, Marie Beale also established the Institute of Andean Research, which was dedicated to the study of Pre-Columbian cultures.Beale, Decatur House, 136.

During their time at Decatur House, the Beales made several important acquisitions. Many of their purchases were furnishings and items for the home, as opposed to objets d’art.For inventory lists with information about the objects held by Decatur House at various points in its history, consult the appendices of Bullock and Morton, Decatur House. She does, however, specifically note two works of art that were acquired during her tenure. One is “a Greek head of Pentellic marble dating from the fourth century B.C.,” the other a Renaissance bronze that the Beales had assessed by experts at Harvard’s Fogg Museum.Beale, Decatur House, 137. Truxtun and Marie Beale did not have a particular time period or culture from which most of their collections came; rather, they were interested in acquiring unique and beautiful items that they felt added to the character of the house. They also worked to preserve the collections and items left by previous owners of Decatur House. Marie Beale in particular wrote that she attempted to keep the furnishings and art objects of the house intact wherever possible.Beale, Decatur House, 137.

Marie Beale was a dedicated preservationist. She championed conservation efforts both in the United States and abroad. One of her signature projects was the preservation of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy.Beale, Decatur House, 138. After the Second World War, the church, a stunning example of Byzantine art, was seriously threatened. Although not directly damaged by the war, Saint Mark’s had been left in disrepair as resources were diverted elsewhere. The curator of the basilica approached Marie Beale directly to ask for her assistance in fundraising. She contributed generously to the cause herself and also solicited donations from her friends and peers through the creation of “Pro San Marco, Inc.”Beale, Decatur House, 139. For her efforts, Marie Beale was made an honorary citizen of Venice in 1952. Given her interest in preservation, it is unsurprising that Marie Beale resisted efforts to demolish Decatur House. She writes that “for a long period, the shadow of condemnation hung over Decatur House.”Beale, Decatur House, 142. On multiple occasions, the first as early as 1938, plans had been proposed to replace the private residences in Lafayette Square with government office buildings.“The Historic Decatur House,” White House Historical Association. In the face of these threats to the building, Marie Beale became increasingly interested in protecting Decatur House by transforming it from a private residence to a public space.

Marie Beale was invested in the historical significance of Decatur House, but it was also extraordinarily meaningful to her personally. It had been her home for most of her adult life. Truxtun Beale, who was at the time of their marriage more than twice Marie’s age, died in 1936. Decatur House then passed to Marie, making her its primary steward and caretaker as well as its owner. She cared deeply about the house—in 1954, she wrote a book entitled Decatur House and Its Inhabitants, which chronicled the history of the building and its residents since its construction in 1818. Of this book, the Washington Post and Times Herald wrote that Marie Beale “cannot conceal her warm affection for her home despite otherwise composing a thoroughly objective history.”“History of Decatur House Spiced with Personalities,” Washington Post and Times Herald, December 26, 1954. Beyond its value as a historic site, Decatur House was a place of personal significance for Marie Beale, and she hoped to find a way to preserve it.

With the writing on the wall that Decatur House would no longer be able to exist as a private residence, Marie Beale made the decision to bequeath her home and its contents to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. On June 11, 1956, Marie Beale died in Zurich, Switzerland, at the age of 75.“Mrs. Beale, Donor of Decatur House.” Decatur House passed to the Trust, saving the historic home from demolition and transferring it into the public sphere. When control of Decatur House was passed to the National Trust, the organization was also able to acquire several artifacts that belonged to Stephen Decatur and the Decatur family. Many family members, although reluctant to transfer these items to another private collector, generously donated them to the Trust.James Tertius de Kay, Michael W. Fazio, Osborne Phinizy Mackie, Katherine Malone-France, and Bruce M. White, The Stephen Decatur House: A History (Washington, DC: White House Historical Association, 2018), 359. With the combination of the Beale collection, the Decatur collection, and the house itself, Decatur House was born as a historic house museum. The Decatur collection was showcased on the first floor, the Beale collection on the second floor. The museum preserved the long history of Decatur House and told the stories of “two unrelated but both very important families, the Decaturs and the Beales, who had occupied the house at different periods, widely separated in time.”De Kay et al., 359.

In 2010, the National Trust came to an agreement with the White House Historical Association.Much of the information about the White House Historical Association’s use of the property comes from an interview with Joanna B. Capps, the White House Historical Association’s director of education, who graciously spoke to us at Decatur House on January 16, 2019. While the Trust retains legal ownership of the property, Decatur House is now the headquarters of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History. This change has resulted in an evolution of the functions of Decatur House. Today, the first floor simulates the house during its time as a private residence, with a combination pieces from the collection, period reproduction items, and modern objects. The second floor, however, is largely without furniture, as the space is now used for event rentals. As a result, much of the collection is housed in an off-site storage facility. Because the collection is not displayed or digitized, the collecting philosophy of Decatur House’s previous occupants is somewhat obscured, and it is more difficult to track the influence of a single family. The house is open for free public tours every Monday, but is otherwise used largely as office and meeting space.

Although Decatur House is no longer the historic house museum Marie Beale may have been envisioning, the spirit of the space is preserved. The event rentals, which provide a crucial source of revenue, also allow people to participate in the long history of entertaining at Decatur House. The change has also led to opportunities for learning and growth far beyond Marie Beale’s original vision. Because of the White House Historical Association’s stewardship, there is now a much more robust conversation about the relationship between Decatur House and the White House, and the interwoven histories of the two buildings. In addition, the shift away from the historic house museum has led to greater focus on other spaces. Decatur House, for example, is home to one of the country’s only slave quarters that has been preserved in an urban setting. At the time of Marie Beale’s death, this adjoining structure was used as living space for house staff. Under the stewardship of the Trust and the White House Historical Association, however, it has been largely restored to its original condition and is used as a site for discussion and education about the history of enslaved people in Washington. Decatur House, under the National Trust and the White House Historical Association, is markedly different than it was as a private residence. It is still, however, a landmark of Lafayette Square and a fixture of Washington’s historical landscape.

Profile by Ava Hampton, 2019 Wintersession student.