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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
805 KIDDER BREESE SE -- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060
The Washington Navy Yard Historic District
The historic district of the Washington Navy Yard was listed
on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. This history
was compiled when the yard was nominated.
The Washington Navy Yard is located in the southeast section
of Washington. The boundaries of the historic district begin at
the southwest corner of the intersection of Parsons Avenue (9th
Street, S.E.), thence South along the west side of Parsons extended
to the Anacostia River; thence Northwesterly along the Yard's
waterfront, including its quays, to its intersection with the
southwest corner of Isaac Hull Avenue extended; thence North along
the west side of Isaac Hull Avenue extended to its intersection
with the south side of M Street, S.E., thence East along the south
side of M Street, S.E, to the place of beginning.
Except for the northwest third, this land gently sloping
upward from the waterfront was created by landfill. Today the
district of approximately nine blocks contains 19th and early
20th century industrial and residential buildings. The area is
an archeological site probably containing artifacts and other
remains which have accumulated in the ground related to the Yard's
construction and servicing of vessels prior to the fire of 1814
and to later manufacturing activity.
The Main Gate, designed by Benjamin Latrobe, is an early
Greek Revival structure which in 1880-81 received a three-story
building over it. It is the focal point of the Yard's northern
boundary. After passing through this architecturally significant
entrance one is on Dahlgren Avenue, the major street of the yard.
This tree-lined north-south street is on an axis with 8th Street.
The Commandant's Office, approximately two and one half blocks
south of the Main Gate, terminates this main axis.
The termination of the main axis here at the center of
the yard rather than at the waterfront visually suggests that
the most important functions of this yard took place at its center
rather than along the quay. This is true as most of the industrial
buildings are in the central section of the yard between Warrington
Avenue at the north and Sicard Street on the south. The visual
character of the whole yard is determined by these functional
buildings, but on entering the yard one is struck by the residential
character of the Commandant's Office, Leutze Park, and the freestanding
buildings at the north and northeast.
Southeast of the Main Gate is Leutze Park, a grassy area
of approximately one block with displays of anchors, bells, and
ordnance. East of the Main Gate bordering the park on the northeast
and north and in the northern section of the yard west of the
Main Gate are residences of naval officers. These buildings, set
back from the street and surrounded by residential planting and
cast iron fences, are two and three story, freestanding houses
constructed between 1801 and 1900 in a variety of styles. Quarters
A and Quarters B are Federal period houses with later additions.
Other houses range in style, from Quarters H, an asymmetrical
Gothic Revival building, to Quarters R, a Colonial Revival house
built in 1900.
Except for Dahlgren Avenue and Parsons Avenue which is
one block east of Dahlgren Avenue, the streets in the yard do
not follow the layout of city streets. Streets run perpendicular
but do not form a grid pattern as most are not through streets.
The effect is almost like a maze. Railroad tracks run through
a number of streets adding to the district's industrial character.
There are a number of open spaces besides Leutze Park.
The Commandant's Office is located in Montgomery Square. Unfortunately
this square is now covered with asphalt as is Trophy Park which
was located between the Commandant's Office and the river. South
of Sicard Street along the west waterfront is Admiral Willard
Park, a triangular area with grass and displays of ordnance surrounded
by parking lots.
Most of the industrial buildings in the district were built
between 1850 and 1919. Most are one, two and three story brick
buildings with three bay wide gable ends sometimes with pediments.
Circular or semicircular windows often are found in the pediments.
Gable roofs predominate although some buildings have monitor roofs
and some 20th century buildings have flat roofs. As a rule buildings
are red brick or brick painted white or grey. Some 20th century
buildings are brick and concrete. Trim is generally painted black.
There are a number of wide arched entrances and often buildings
have arched windows as well. Applied ornamentation is minimal.
The harmonious effect of these buildings comes from their pleasing
proportions, evenly spaced openings, symmetry, and the uniformity
of scale and material throughout the district. In size and simplicity
of form the buildings reflect their original functions and dates
Unfortunately a number of buildings such as Building 41
and buttressed Building 76 have suffered from 20th century additions
and alterations. These attached buildings together have east and
west facades over three blocks long, but the continuity of the
east facade is broken intermittently by one story additions which
destroy the rhythmic division into bays.
Almost all industrial buildings abut the streets and many
are attached so that there are regular streetlines and a definite
feeling of enclosure of space. Most buildings have a very long
axis and a narrow axis determined by the norman mid- to late-19th
century truss span. Some of the 20th century structures are wider
reflecting technological changes in building construction. The
industrial buildings in the east half of the district predominately
have longer north-west axes while those in the west half have
longer east-west axes. An exception is building 33 and 36. These
buildings dating from 1855 are west of Paulding Street and north
of Kennon Street and form a quadrangle occupying an entire city
block. The 2-story, hipped roof buildings' longer axes are the
Five buildings at the northwest south of Washington Avenue
between Isaac Hull Avenue and Patterson Avenue create a particularly
fine street scene due to their rhythmic spacing and similar mass.
These structures erected between 1860 and 1902 have arched openings
and three bay gable ends with large central entrances. Two buildings
have been joined to form Building 104 but the addition does not
destroy the effect of the grouping. Dahlgren's Foundry which was
south of these blocks has been replaced by attached 20th century
In the 19th century the waterfront was dominated by Ship
Houses. Now it contains piers, Admiral Willard Park, and, at the
east, the Marine Railroad. Just west of the slip with the functioning
marine railroad is the 470' long building which contained the
Model Basin. Constructed in 1897 this one story building with
monitor roof has no windows on its east and west facades. The
basin has been filled in and the building is now used for storage.
The functions of most buildings have changed over the years
reflecting changing types of ordnance and ways of manufacturing.
Since the weapons plant closed in 1962 most of the industrial
buildings have been used for storage. However, a museum is housed
in part of Building 76 and some buildings are used as offices.
Residences continue to serve their original function and some
structures such as the Commandant's Office and Building 58, previously
used as a store and later as a storage house, now serve residential
The Joint Committee on Landmarks has designated the Washington
Navy Yard Historic District a Category II Landmark of importance
which contributes significantly to the cultural heritage and visual
beauty of the District of Columbia. Established in 1799, it was
one of the United States' first naval yards. It was our primary
navy yard until 1815, and later in the nineteenth century it became
the center for naval ordnance research and production. In this
role it made many significant technological advances, most important
of which was the work of John Dahlgren in the 1840s and 1850s.
The Navy Yard also has an important place in Washington's local
history. It is the southern terminus for L'Enfant's Eighth Street
(East) axis, and was one of the city's few important nineteenth
century manufacturing establishments.
The Washington Navy Yard is located on the west bank of
the Anacostia River at the terminus of the Eighth Street axis.
Initially, most of the land was underwater, but landfill operations
steadily increased the Yard's size from about 16 acres in 1801
to about 40 acres by 1858. Nineteenth century plans indicate that
its boundaries were extended somewhat to the west later in the
century, but almost all of the Yard's buildings remained within
the 1858 borders until the twentieth century. With the exception
of the land which runs for about 80 feet west of Isaac Hull Avenue
and is now under the control of the General Services Administration,
the proposed historic district, bounded by Parsons Avenue (9th
Street) on the east Isaac Hull Avenue on the west, M Street on
the north, and the Anacostia River on the south, is almost identical
to the 1858 borders of the Washington Yard.
Congress never specifically appropriated any money for
the establishment of the Navy Yard. Secretary of the Navy Benjamin
Stoddert, encouraged by George Washington's enthusiasm for such
an establishment in Washington, used the money from a 1799 appropriation
for ship construction to found the Yard. The Yard's official founding
date is October 2, 1799, the date that the District Commissioners
transferred Public Reservation #14 to the United States Government
for the yard. A few months later, on March 17, 1800, adjoining
Squares 883 and 884 were purchased by the Navy Yard to complete
its initial boundaries.
A great reduction in naval appropriations following a declaration
of peace with France in 1800 seriously threatened the yard's development.
However, President Jefferson's great interest in the development
of Washington and his desire to keep the Navy in a location where
he could watch over it prevented the yard from languishing. In
1802 Jefferson ordered the yard to construct 100 gun carriages
as a gift to the Sultan of Morocco. When Congress authorized $50,000
for construction of gunboats in response to our conflict with
the Tripolitan pirates, the first model was completed at the Washington
Navy Yard in 1804. Of most importance was Jefferson's 1803 designation
of the Washington Navy Yard as the home port for the United States
Navy and the depository for all vessels in ordinary. Although
ship construction provided the impetus for the foundation of the
yard, most of its activity in the 1800 to 1814 period involved
the repair and servicing of our small naval establishment.
Interest in the Washington Navy Yard resulted in the transformation
of this virgin and swampy area to a substantial establishment
by 1814. Largely under the guidance of an 1804 plan by prominent
architect, Benjamin Latrobe, officer's quarters and more than
a handful of substantial buildings for industrial activities and
storehouses were constructed by 1814.
Much of the Washington Navy Yard was destroyed in 1814
when the yard's Commandant set fire to the installation, rather
than see the facilities fall into the hands of the invading British.
(Industrial sites destroyed by fire are especially fine sites
for archeological investigation.) Although a reconstruction program
was initiated and the yard's area greatly increased by 1828 through
a land fill program, the yard never regained its primary position
in our naval establishment. Nevertheless, it remained one of the
Navy's major yards for ship construction into the 1830s, and shipbuilding
continued at the yard until 1874.
In 1815 it was decided that the shallowness of the Anacostia
River channel and other obstructions to navigation made the Washington
Navy Yard less than an ideal port. Consequently, repair operations
were transferred to the Norfolk Yard and much of the ship construction
continued at other facilities. However, the skill of the Washington
Navy Yard's workmen and the variety of its shops were unmatched,
so it was decided that its industrial facilities be expanded.
In 1827 it was designated the center of manufacturing for navy
ship equipment such as anchors and chain cables. By 1842 it "had
become the one yard in the United States which was capable of
constructing steam engines...[and] continued to build steam engines
until about 1864 when most of the original manufacture of this
Navy equipment passed into the hands of private manufacturers."
In the 1840s and 1850s the Washington Navy Yard's facilities
were greatly expanded, and its nineteenth century industrial heart
was constructed. The great quadrangle formed by present building
#33 and #36, one story L-shaped brick structures more than 400
feet long, was completed about 1857. A copper rolling mill, present
building #46, was completed in 1853. Aside from the added economy,
the mill was also needed to "furnish a better quality of
rolled copper for sheathing vessels," than could be obtained
from private sources. An iron foundry was established in 1854,
to provide the ordnance department with "a standard by which
to measure the privately cast cannon." The use of the yard's
manufactured goods as a yardstick by which to measure private
ordnance production was a practice which continued through World
War II, and was a major cause for the establishment of the United
States Naval Gun Factory according to Dr. Dean Allard, Head of
the Operational Archives, Naval History Division, Washington Navy
Although the Washington Navy Yard had been involved in
ordnance production since its inception, its position in the field
was firmly established in this period when Lieutenant (later Rear
Admiral) John Dahlgren came to the yard in 1847. Dahlgren won
world-wide recognition for his development of a system of triangular
gun sites in 1847 and for the development of the famous nine and
eleven inch Dahlgren guns in the 1850s.
In 1886 all of the Washington Navy Yard shops were turned
over to the production of ordnance in response to an 1884 decision
to establish the United States Naval Gun Factory at the Washington
Navy Yard. This action and the comparable 1827 decision to concentrate
navy manufacturing at the Washington Navy Yard mark some of the
earliest attempts by the Navy to establish a modernized system.
They are significant as quite early attempts by any organization
to adapt to the demands of modern technology and increasing size.
The specialization of the Yard's activities in manufacturing
resulted in the growing importance of the central portion of the
Washington Navy Yard rather than the waterfront orientation that
one would expect at a navy yard. Nevertheless, two of the yard's
most historically significant facilities, the Marine Railway and
the Model Basin, are located on the quay.
The Marine Railway, an inclined plane used to more easily
haul ships ashore for repairs, was first designed and built by
Commodore John Rodgers in 1822. This was one of the nation's first
marine railways and, when the experiment proved a success, a permanent
facility was built in 1823. Since that time the railway has had
to be overhauled due to the ravages of age and the change from
manual or animal to mechanical power. It is doubtful that any
of the original design remains, and the present machinery reportedly
is marked with a patent date from the 1880s. The railway is still
operative, and is part of a special facility used to maintain
the Presidential yacht.
With the exception of the work of John Dahlgren, the Yard's
most important scientific research has occurred at the Model Basin,
Building #70. The building and its 388 foot long model basin,
the first in the United States, was constructed in 1897-99 under
the supervision of its designer, Rear Admiral David Watson Taylor.
By constructing scale models of proposed ships and studying their
movements in the basin, American shipbuilders for the first time
were able to accurately gauge the power necessary to drive ships
based upon the resistance the models met in the water. Numerous
experiments on hull and propeller design, the rolling of ships,
and other problems in hydrodynamics continued at the Model Basin
until the end of World War II when such research was centralized
at the new facility in Carderock, Maryland. Since that time the
Model Basin has been filled in and the equipment removed. The
building is now being used as a storage area.
The Washington Navy Yard was probably the most important
manufacturing establishment of nineteenth century Washington.
The yard was located on the site which Pierre L'Enfant intended
for Exchange Square, the terminus of the Eighth Street Axis. It
was feared that construction of a navy yard rather than a commercial
center would greatly reduce the potential land values which the
L'Enfant plan promised. A description of early nineteenth century
Washington, however, indicates that the Navy Yard area was one
of the city's most flourishing sections. In 1820, when Washington's
total population (including slaves) was only 33,000, the Navy
Yard had 380 employees, and it continued to be one of the city's
major employers throughout the nineteenth century. Although the
Washington installation was not able to retain its early position
as this country's pre-eminent navy yard, it did at least fulfill
the hopes of Washington and Jefferson as being an important spur
to the Capitol's growth and economic health.
Due to its position as the major naval installation in
the Nation's Capital the Washington Navy Yard has frequently been
the scene of important events. In 1860 the first Japanese Embassy
to the United States debarked at its wharf, as did Colonel Charles
A. Lindbergh when he returned from the first solo flight across
the Atlantic in 1927. President Abraham Lincoln and important
foreign dignitaries visited the yard to consult with John Dahlgren,
and Lincoln's assassins were imprisoned on board ship there. The
Washington Yard has served as the port for the presidential yacht
since the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.
As a result of the naval expansion programs of Theodore
and Franklin Roosevelt and the pressure of two world wars, the
Washington Navy Yard tripled in size during the twentieth century.
After is final expansion in 1944, its boundaries stretched from
First Street, S.E., to Eleventh Street, S.E. Ordnance production
and experiments continued at the yard until 1962 when the weapons
plant was closed, and in the following year the yard's 60.5 western
acres were transferred to the General Services Administration.
The yard since that time has been primarily a naval administrative
center, a function which a 1966 Development Plan proposes strengthening.
This plan also proposes the creation of a historic precinct in
the yard's center which would preserve many of the yard's historic
buildings for use as officer's quarters and as a United States
Navy Museum. While it is unreasonable to preserve all of the yard's
historic buildings, it is essential that a sufficient number be
retained to preserve this area's nineteenth century flavor.
02 March 1997