My Loss Can Be Your Gain: How to Make a Splash in the DC Party Scene by Gregory Hilton

My latest party proposal was just rejected, but it is a great idea for another organization or a wealthy individual. For over a century a prominent DC institution is the annual White House reception in honor of the Diplomatic Corps. This is the highpoint of the social season for any Ambassador, and the event always includes photos of the attendees with the President and First Lady, as well as numerous cabinet members and Congressional leaders.
In years past the diplomats could leave the White House and walk one block to attend post party receptions at either the Corcoran Gallery of Art (directly across 16th Street) or Decatur House (located on Lafayette Square in front of the White House). Due to budget cutbacks, there is nothing planned for the diplomats after the next party at the end July in 2010.
The staff of the American Red Cross has been cut in half during the past year, and they will not be sponsoring this event. The prominent socialites who had similar gatherings in past years have abandoned the practice.
If someone steps in to fill this void they will have prominent bragging rights. How many people can claim their soirée was attended by over 160 Ambassadors? That was the typical attendance a few years ago.
The rental rate for the magnificent Corcoran Gallery is steep, but Decatur House is a real bargain. I rented the Corcoran for a non-profit in 1988 and the entire cost (facility and operations fee, security and valet parking) came to just $6,000 for the entire evening, and our guests were able to freely roam around the gallery. Today the rental fee is $6000/hour.
On the other hand, Decatur House will allow a non-profit to use their building for 10 hours (three hours for set up and seven hours for a party) for a mere $2000. The cost for an individual would be $5000, and unlike the Corcoran, you can use your own caterer to reduce overhead. You do not have to worry about valet parking because the majority of guests will be on foot from the East Room.
The function has a distinguished history and it will instantly enhance the prestige as well as the fundraising potential of your organization. This post party reception was described by Time magazine in 1949 as the city’s “second most desirable invitation.” According to Time, “Mrs. Truxton Beale, the owner of Decatur House, entertains with a rigid selectivity. Her most heralded function is the white-tie party she hosts after the annual White House diplomatic reception, which takes place, conveniently enough, just across Lafayette Square from her residence.”
A 1938 Life magazine article included 14 photographs and was entitled “Life Goes to a Party with high Washington Society at Mrs. Truxtun Beale’s historic Decatur House. . . she is one of Washington’s topflight hostesses, has been giving her post-Diplomatic Reception party ever since the War. An affair so exclusive that even guest lists do not appear, it has never before been photographed.”
The Decatur House was built in 1818 and its previous residents include Secretary of State Henry Clay and Vice President Martin Van Buren. (Van Buren’s Lafayette Square neighbor was Dolley Madison, and her niece married his son). It was owned by the Beale family from 1872 until 1956. The following excerpt is from “Decatur House and Its Inhabitants” (1954) by Marie Beale. If my event had occurred I would have printed this on the back of the invitation.
“Like a prim dowager, Decatur House serenely overlooks the park that grew up in its front yard, preserving unchanged its original simplicity. During more than 130 years of intimate connection with the main stream of American history Decatur House has been the inner sanctum of Lafayette Square.
“Few houses have witnessed such a panorama of events. Here the dying Commodore Stephen Decatur suffered out his last hours in 1820 after being wounded in a duel. Here foreign ministers represented the power and policies of other nations. Henry Clay struggled here for the Good Neighbor Policy and the Presidency, attaining one but not the other. The ‘gorgeous hussy’ Peggy Eaton (the young wife of the Secretary of War) quarreled here with the wife of Vice President John C. Calhoun, and the astute Van Buren moved on to the White House and subsequent defeat.
“In this house lived Secretary of State Edward Livingston who averted the first secession threat by South Carolina. The gaudy tavern owner Gadsby lived here, the unimpeachable Vice President George Dallas, and the benevolent Appleton. Two leaders of the Confederate cause, Generals Cobb and Benjamin, walked these floors as they reached the most momentous decision of their lives, and renounced their country.
“After the interim of the Civil War years, a General and a President, Ulysses S. Grant, came here for friendship and counsel from General Beale, himself one of the architects of the American West, a ‘pioneer in the path of empire.’ Through the tumultuous period that followed, Truxtun Beale preserved the historic role of Decatur House in the life of Washington. Residents of Decatur House have occupied the Presidency and Vice Presidency; they have been Cabinet members, military leaders, Congressmen; they have been foreign diplomats and American envoys to other nations; the roster includes Confederate Statesmen, a jurist and an inn-keeper. By all of them Decatur House was valued, and perhaps beloved.”

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