Posts Tagged ‘Decatur House’

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The White House Gingerbread House Exhibit

I don’t like it when retailers start focusing on Christmas well before Thanksgiving.  And if it were up to me, I would have all stores be closed on Thanksgiving to allow employees to spend the day with their families.  I’d even be okay with stores staying closed on Black Friday.  However, I don’t mind when some early signs of the holiday, such as the many Christmas decorations that adorn the city during the holiday season, start appearing in November.  For example, as I was riding through Lafayette Square Park on this lunchtime bike ride, I was happy to see a sign advertising a Christmas exhibit of gingerbread houses was already open.  So I decided to stop and check into itWhen I asked the very helpful lady at the entrance about the exhibit, she told me no one else was currently there.  So with the place all to myself, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take the self-guided tour right then.

The holiday exhibit is sponsored by The White House Historical Association, and is entitled “White House Gingerbread: Holiday Traditions.”  The exhibit celebrates the official national gingerbread house created each year by the White House’s executive chef, and explores the tradition of gingerbread at the White House dating back to the Nixon administration.  The main display features the largest gingerbread White House ever designed by the chef.  And surrounding it are gingerbread panels illustrating many of the White House’s neighboring buildings, such as the Old Executive Office Building, the U.S. Treasury Department Building, and St. John’s Episcopal Church, to name just a few.  The exhibit also incorporates examples of marzipan figures and sugar sculptures that have accompanied and accented many of the gingerbread houses over the years.

The exhibit also features photographs of the various types of gingerbread houses of different presidential administrations, including the Obama Administration’s version from last year, with historical information of each.  Along with the wide variety of gingerbread houses, many of the photographs also feature the inhabitants of the White House.  While I enjoyed each of the houses, I guess I am somewhat of a gingerbread house traditionalist, because I did not favor the more recent creations.  Dating back to the George W. Bush Administration, the most recent houses have been made out of white chocolate rather than gingerbread.  I hope this trend ends soon and they return to the old-fashioned gingerbread.

The “White House Gingerbread: Holiday Traditions” exhibit is on display at Decatur House on Lafayette Square, which is  located at 1610 H Street in northwest D.C. (MAP).  It is open from 10:00am – 3:00pm, Monday through Saturday, and will remain open and free to the public through December 22nd.  I highly recommend stopping by if you’re in the area, or even planning a specific trip to see it and the many other Christmas decorations throughout the national capital city during the upcoming holiday season.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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Decatur House on Lafayette Square

In 1820, Stephen Decatur, Jr., a U.S. Naval Officer notable for his long and celebrated career, was shot during a duel with another officer, Commodore James Barron.  A long-time rival, Barron bore a grudge against Decatur for his role in Barron’s court-martial and ouster from the Navy years earlier.  Attempting to solve the issue, Decatur accepted Barron’s challenge to a duel. Decatur shot and wounded Barron, as was his intention, and was prepared to let the matter drop. Barron, however, had other plans. He mortally wounded Decatur and exacted his revenge. Decatur was taken to his home, where he didn’t die straight away, however.  It took him two days of agonizing pain to finally succumb to the gut-shot.

It’s notable that their duel occurred during a time period when duels between officers were so common that it was creating a shortage of experienced officers, forcing the War Department to threaten to discharge those who attempted to pursue the practice.

Washington society, as well as the entire nation, was shocked upon learning that Decatur had been killed in a duel with a rival navy captain.  His funeral was attended by Washington’s elite, including President James Monroe and the justices of the Supreme Court, as well as most of Congress. Over 10,000 citizens of Washington and the surrounding area also attended his funeral to pay their last respects to the national hero.

On today’s bike ride I went by Decatur’s former home. Located at 1610 H Street in northwest D.C. (MAP), the house is one of the oldest surviving homes in D.C., and one of only three remaining houses in the country designed by neoclassical architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the “father of American architecture.” In D.C., Latrobe also designed St. John’s Episcopal Church (also known as the President’s Parish) and parts of The White House.  The Decatur House was built with the prize money Decatur was awarded for his naval conquests in the War of 1812.  The couple moved into their grand house in 1819 and spent the first several months cementing their social prominence in Washington by hosting a number of extravagant parties. Prominently located on Lafayette Square just north of the White House, the house was later the home of a number of other famous people, including President Martin Van Buren, who rented it from Decatur’s widow.

Despite leaving her financially well-off at the time of his death, his widow was eventually forced to sell the home due to overwhelming debt.  The subsequent owner built an addition onto the house – a large two-story dependency building at the rear of the property.  This was used as quarters for the numerous enslaved individuals in his household.

Sometimes referred to as a house of slavery and death, Decatur House is considered among paranormal enthusiasts to be one of D.C.’s most haunted. Those who have been in the house frequently claim to have seen Stephen Decatur walking the halls, his expression one of bleak sadness. He has been sighted throughout the house. And though he is often seen looking out windows or walking the halls, he is not the only phenomenon to take place. There are also reports of a mournful weeping and wailing sound that comes from empty rooms or is heard after hours. While no one is certain just who it is, most people believe the voice to belong to Decatur’s widow, Susan. The most palpable phenomenon is the feeling of sadness and heaviness that comes from the room on the first floor where Decatur died.

As with many historical homes, the house is now a museum and houses The Decatur House National Center for White House History, a repository for all things having to do with the home of the President. It is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  It is also open for historic tours of the house as well as self-guided tours of exhibits and even cell phone tours in which visitors are guided by calling the museum’s tour number. Additionally, the house is also available to host weddings and other special events, keeping in the tradition that Stephen and Susan Decatur started almost 200 years ago.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]