STEPHEN decatur house museum


Washington, D.C.


2010 Award for Excellence in Architecture, VSAIA

2010 Proclamation Award, Mayor Fenty

2008 Excellence Award for Historic Resources, AIA Washington Chapter

2005 Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation, DC Historic Preservation Office

2004 Award for Historic Resources, AIA Washington Chapter

National Register of Historic Places

National Historic Landmark 

Long at the center of Washington’s social and political life in 1818, the Stephen Decatur House was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, “the Father of American Architecture,” for the naval hero, Admiral Stephen Decatur.  After changing subsequent hands and undergoing numerous changes over two centuries, the aspect of the house varied significantly from its original construction.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Davis Buckley Architects and Planners (DBA) to restore the Stephen Decatur House Museum to its period of significance and to enhance the historical narrative of the site.  


The sensitive design approach required meticulous physical and documentary research in order to write an overall facility assessment and a plan for the building to function as a house museum that could accommodate a museum shop and special events.  Working with specialized conservators and a knowledge of historic construction methods and vernacular architecture, DBA examined historic masonry, plaster and floor finishes, researched the history of alterations to the house and developed a targeted approach to the restoration of the first floor spaces in the house.


In the Entry Hall and Stair Hall, up to thirty coats of paint were removed to reveal original moulding details.  Door and window hardware were restored to operating condition and lost hardware pieces were custom cast to match the missing originals.  The wide wood plank floor was disassembled and reinstalled to correct settlements of up to 2-1/2 inches. Paint analysis revealed an original bright blue wall color with striking yellow trim, and the spaces were returned to that scheme.


After discovering evidence of cooking grease on the walls of a room previously thought to be the parlor, DBA began the restoration of the kitchen to its original 1818 appearance.   Working with the museum’s curator, director of educational programs, and director of buildings and grounds, the DBA team synthesized the evidence visible within the original plaster work and wood floor finish to recreate its correct configuration.  The fireplace, long used as a decorative piece, was restored to its utilitarian appearance.  Brick flooring adjacent to the hearth, which was typical in early nineteenth century kitchens, replaced wood flooring installed in the late 1870s while the remaining original pine flooring was retained in the rest of the room.  One third of the kitchen was left unreconstructed to allow for future investigation, and printed plexiglass panels were mounted on the walls to provide tour guides with an easily altered, non-intrusive means to speak about the nature of the nineteenth century kitchen. 


Integration of the building’s use as a house museum and site for events required the incorporation of modern lighting, fire and life safety technology, and ADA accessibility into the historic fabric of the structure without interfering with its architectural integrity.  Each step of the project involved close coordination with the curator, education program director, and facilities director in order to allow for the museum to remain open and to meet tight schedules to accommodate the many special events that were to take place on the site.