Tag Archives: Lafayette Square

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.”

A Presidential Visit to NYC’s Belasco Theater: Remembering the History of Lafayette Square by Gregory Hilton

Actress Bette Davis serves cake at the Stage Door Canteen in 1943. The Canteen was located in the Belasco Theater on Lafayette Square, across from the White House.

Actress Bette Davis serves cake at the Stage Door Canteen in 1943. The Canteen was located in the Belasco Theater on Lafayette Square, across from the White House.

A Presidential Visit to NYC’s Belasco Theater: Remembering the History of Lafayette Square by Gregory Hilton–
Last night the President and Mrs. Obama had another “Date Night.” This time they visited New York City’s Belasco Theater, and because of the cost, the Republican National Committee criticized the outing. The Obama’s traveled in a small Gulfstream V jet rather than a Boeing 747. I am not joining the critics and the strong marital bond between the Obama’s is refreshing after some of the scandals of the past.
The Obama’s may not realize that for 70 years another Belasco Theater and its predecessor could be clearly seen from the front door of the White House. I first learned about the building in David Brinkley’s book “Washington Goes to War.” The six story structure was demolished in 1964 but it had an important role in DC history since its construction in 1895 as the Lafayette Square Opera House. Over the next fifty years, performers including Sarah Bernhardt, Al Jolsen, Will Rogers, Enrico Caruso, Ethel Barrymore, Katherine Hepburn and Helen Hays would grace its stage. It was the main venue for opera, plays, and ballet at the turn of the 20th century in Washington. In 1906, the Opera House became the Belasco Theater, one of the only venues in Washington to present African American acts to desegregated audiences.
The building had a soaring facade, with Ionic columns framing the main entrance on Madison Place. The auditorium could seat about 1800, and it included three balconies and thirty boxes. Live performances ended in the early years of the Depression, and by 1935 it was converted to a movie house specializing in foreign films. After America’s entry into WW II, the Belasco was reopened as the Stage Door Canteen for the entertainment of servicemen. Admission was limited to enlisted men and non-commissioned officers. The canteen offered servicemen nights of dancing, entertainment, food and nonalcoholic drinks, and even opportunities to hobnob with celebrities and lawmakers. Though the canteen served food to the servicemen free of charge, someone had to pay for it.
DC residents responded generously to appeals for aid. Bette Davis said volunteering at the canteen was one of the “few accomplishments in my life that I am sincerely proud of.” One of the many praiseworthy qualities of the canteen was its egalitarian credo. They were open to all servicemen of Allied nations, and segregation had no place in them.
By November 1945, Stage Door Canteens were operating in eight US cities and London and Paris. Together, they entertained and fed 11 million Allied servicemen. With the war over it was closed at the start of 1946, but it would re-open during the Korean War, when it was known as the Lafayette Square Club, again as a venue for entertaining servicemen.
The Belasco Theater was torn down in 1964 and the site is now the U.S. Court of Claims Building

The Belasco Theater was torn down in 1964 and the site is now the U.S. Court of Claims building

In the early 60s, with the reconstruction of Lafayette Square, many of the Belasco’s neighbors were razed, until finally, in 1964, the Belasco itself was torn down to make way for the new US Court of Claims Building.
Before it was a theater: the Rodgers House
The theater was built in 1896 on the site of the 1830s Rodgers House, which was one of Washington’s more famous 19th century residences before its demolition in 1894. The land was owned by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky who ran for President three times. He traded it to Commodore John Rodgers who constructed a 30 room house in 1831. It was rented by Attorney General Roger Taney, who later served for 28 years as the Chief Justice of the United States. President James Polk was a resident while the White House was being restored.
The building was later a fashionable boarding house and was known as the Washington Club. It was also famously the site of the 1859 shooting of Phillip Barton Kelly, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. He was the son of Francis Scott Key, and he was killed by Congressman Daniel Sickles. Sickles shot Key, who had been having an affair with his wife, in full view of pedestrians and the White House. The case and subsequent trial of Sickles drew national media attention, further cementing the Square’s image as a neighborhood unlike any other in the country. One of Sickles’ attorneys was Edwin Stanton who would later serve as Secretary of War in the Lincoln Administration.
In a landmark decision, Sickles was acquitted of murder, based on his plea of temporary insanity, which was the first successful use of this defense. Sickles became a general during the Civil War, fought at the battle of Gettysburg and had his right leg blown off by a cannon ball. He had the presence of mind to tell the medical corpsmen to preserve the leg which they did and it can be seen at the Walter Reed Medical Museum in Washington.
After the fateful day in 1859 the Washington Club closed and the next occupant was Secretary of State William Seward of the incoming Lincoln Administration. A former governor of New York, Seward had campaigned for the Republican nomination in 1860 but lost out to Lincoln who promptly offered him the State position. Lincoln constantly visited Seward in his house to seek his advice on the progress of the war. On April 14, 1865 the Rodger’s House again witnessed violence as the site of the attempted assassination of Seward by Lewis Payne, a conspirator with John Wilkes Booth in the Lincoln assassination plot. Payne was hung in the courtyard of Fort McNair in July 1865. Seward survived and in 1867 in the parlor of his home he completed the negotiations for the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.
The last person to occupy the house before it became a theater was Secretary of State James Blaine in the Benjamin Harrison administration. He leased the house in 1889 but tragedy struck again when first his son and then his daughter died in the house within a year. Blaine soon after became ill, resigned and then died in the house in January 1893.