Commodore Stephen Decatur House

View of a three story red brick building and a busy city street with several cars parked nearby.
Commodore Stephen Decatur House on the corner of H Street NW and Jackson Place in Lafayette Square.

White House Historical Association

Quick Facts
748 Jackson Pl NW, Washington, DC 20006
National Historic Landmark

Historical/Interpretive Information/Exhibits

Designed by Architect of the Capital, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the Commodore Stephen Decatur House was the home of the famous naval captain from 1818 until Decatur’s death in 1820. Located near the White House at the northwestern corner of Lafayette Square, Decatur commissioned the house as his family’s Washington residence where he entertained friends and dignitaries. After Decatur’s death in a duel in 1820, the property temporarily housed several prominent Washington statesmen including Senator Henry Clay and future-president Martin Van Buren. During the 19th century, the Decatur House served as a social center for Washington’s elite and as a residence for many prominent Washington politicians and foreign envoys.  

Born in 1779 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in a small fishing town, Stephen Decatur was the son of a merchant seaman who fought the British and French Navies during the Revolutionary War. As a teenager, Decatur joined the fledgling American Navy and distinguished himself as an able fighter and skilled seaman in the Quasi-War (1798-1800) with the French Republic. After being promoted to the rank of lieutenant, Decatur battled the Barbary Pirates in North Africa and successfully raided Tripoli Harbor in 1804. His actions in the southern Mediterranean won Decatur international fame and earned him the captaincy of the USS Philadelphia at the age of twenty-five. During the War of 1812, Decatur was further promoted to the rank of Commodore and won glory after the capture of the British Warship HMS Macedonian off the coast of the Azores.  

With money acquired from his capture of the British frigate Macedonian, Decatur and his wife, Susan Wheeler Decatur, commissioned famed architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design an elegant three-story, Federal-style brick mansion at the northwest corner of Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington D.C. Latrobe, who designed nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church and the White House portico, was instructed by the Decatur’s to create a luxurious private residence “fit for entertaining.” Latrobe’s design included spacious double-drawing rooms that allowed the family to host balls and other social gatherings attended by Washington’s political elite and European dignitaries. Commodore Decatur had lived in the house for only fourteen months when he was killed in a duel with Commodore James Barron in March of 1820 after Decatur publicly criticized Barron’s capture by British forces in 1807. 

After her husband’s death, Sarah Decatur relocated to Georgetown and rented the house to a series of foreign diplomats. During this period, Decatur House became the unofficial residence of the U.S. Secretaries of State including Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, and Edward Livingston who successively occupied the property between 1827 and 1833. After becoming heavily indebted, Susan Decatur sold Decatur House to John Gadsby in 1836, a prominent Washington area hotelier. Gadsby purchased the Decatur House as a retirement home for him and his family and moved ten enslaved individuals from his National Hotel to reside and work at the property. After Gadsby’s death in 1844, his wife, Providence, leased the property for twelve years during which time it was occupied by Vice President George M. Dallas and Senator Judah P. Benjamin. In 1871, the Decatur House was purchased by California statesman Edward Beale whose family owned the property until 1952 when it was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Decatur House served as one of the first headquarters of the National Trust and as the Trust’s first house museum property. In 1967, the property was designated a National Historic Landmark and became a public museum. The property is currently leased to the White House Historical Association.

Generations of enslaved families lived and worked at the Decatur House prior to Emancipation. The quarters where the enslaved workers lived still stands today as a rare example of an extant urban slave dwelling in the nation’s capital. Many of the prominent American politicians living at Decatur House enslaved people who resided and worked at the property. One enslaved resident, Charlotte Dupuy sued her owner, noted politician and statesman Henry Clay, for her freedom triggering a lengthy legal battle that eventually resulted in her emancipation in 1840. Throughout his ownership of the Decatur House, John Gadsby purchased and sold many slaves, often from outside of Washington D.C. with the explicit intent to sever family connections. Gadsby owned several enslaved individuals that worked at the Decatur House and were housed in the two-story structure facing H Street.

The Decatur House is both an architectural landmark and a historical landmark as the first private residence in the neighborhood of the White House and as one of the few remaining residential designs of renowned Architect of the Capital Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Throughout its two-hundred years of existence, the Decatur House has been the residence of many influential American politicians and military figures of the 19th century and a site of enslavement for generations of African Americans. Through the legacy of the individuals that resided and worked there and through its architectural expression, the Decatur House remains a symbol of the United States’ growing political and cultural ambitions during the 19th century. 


Allison, Robert J.  
2005 Stephen Decatur: American Naval Hero, 1779-1820, University of Massachusetts Press, Boston, MA 

De Kay, James T.  
2004 A Rage for Glory: The Life of Commodore Stephen Decatur, Free Press Publishers, New York, NY 

Long, David F.  
1979 William Bainbridge and the Barron-Decatur Duel: Mere Participant or Active Plotter?, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 103, No. 1 

National Park Service, 
American Federation of Labor Building National Register of Historic Places Inventory- Nomination Form, National Park Service, Department of Labor  

White House Historical Association 
The Historic Decatur House, White House Association Website,

White House Historical Association 
Commodore Stephen Decatur: An Early American Naval War Hero, White House Association Website,

White House Historical Association  
Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood Press Collection, White House Historical Association Press Collection,

NHL Nomination  

National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are historic places that possess exceptional value in commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States. The National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program oversees the designation of such sites. There are just over 2,500 National Historic Landmarks. All NHLs are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  

The White House and President's Park , Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail

Last updated: April 7, 2021