|Decatur House circa 1920. Source: Library of Congress.|
|Decatur House in 2006. Photo by the author.|
Decatur was a rock star in his day, universally celebrated for his daring naval exploits. He was fortunate to be a great naval commander during the relatively brief period in the early 19th century when military prowess at sea fired the imagination of the public as little else did. After the War of 1812, at the second inaugural ball of President James Madison, Decatur laid the battle flag of a British ship he had vanquished at the feet of Dolley Madison, another idol of the day. Having at last been appointed to Washington as a commissioner of the Navy, Decatur decided it was time to build a show house for himself and his wife Susan with the prize money he had received for his naval conquests. He bought a prominent lot on the west side of what would become Lafayette Park and commissioned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) to design an appropriately prominent mansion. He is said to have asked for a house that would be "sturdy as a ship."