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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's Building One:
The Middendorf Building and Historic Commandant's Office
Related Resource: Building One
Architecture and history
Building One, the Historic Commandant's Office,
is the home of several offices of the Naval Historical Center.
It is the Navy's oldest active office building, and is located
in one of the Navy's oldest shore establishments.
Designed and constructed between 1837 and 1838, it provided
office space for the Commandant of the Navy Yard and his staff
for over a hundred years. Like the Navy Yard itself, Building
One has undergone numerous changes during its many years of existence.
Still, much of the original structure can by detected through
a close inspection.
The rehabilitation and preservation of Building One was
completed in 1993. The project was funded by the Legacy Resource
Management Program and Navy Operational and Maintenance funds.
From Building One, tree-lined Dahlgren Avenue rises northward
two blocks to Latrobe Gate, designed by architect Benjamin Henry
Latrobe in 1804 as the formal entrance to the yard. In 1838, an
observer looking south from the newly constructed Building One
had an unobstructed view of the Anacostia River and a pastoral
vista of farms and houses on the opposite shore. The Commandant's
Office, a hub of activity in the Navy Yard, oversaw ship construction
and repair and related trades. To the southeast of Building One
stood Ship House A and a marine railway; to the west loomed the
enormous Ship House B, near what was then the western edge of
the Navy Yard, approximately at the foot of present-day Isaac
Hull Avenue. Ninth Street was then the eastern end of the yard.
Today, the old David Taylor Model Ship Basin (Building
70), built in 1898, stands to the east of Building One. Slip Number
1, once partially covered by Ship House A, is the home of the
Chief of Naval Operation's barge. The Navy Museum (Building 76),
the display ship Barry (DD-933), and Willard Park comprise
the south-westerly scene from Building One. Several pieces of
nineteenth-century iron ordnance are displayed on the south lawn.
Information about the first years of the Commandant's Office
is sparse. A request "for completing a building for officers--2,000
(dollars)" appeared in the Report of the Secretary of
the Navy for 1837. In 1831 the Tripolitan Monument of 1808
had been removed from the south end of Dahlgren Avenue. Placing
the Commandant's Office there a few years later gave Dahlgren
Avenue a distinct and aesthetically pleasing terminus. In his
description of the Washington Navy Yard in his 1842 New Guide
to Washington, George Watterson observed that the "building
for Officers, a neat and beautiful building of brick, two stories
high, with verandas running all around it, has lately been erected
as offices, for the officers and others doing business in this
establishment." From his new, centrally-located office, the
commandant administered the yard and its important manufacturing
work. He oversaw shipbuilding and repair and the manufacturing
of steam engines and chain in the yard's forges and shops. A bell
atop a pole on the captain's walk tolled the workday schedule
for hands in the yard.
One distinguished commandant of the Washington Navy Yard
used Building One not only as his office but also as his residence.
Lieutenant John Adolphus Dahlgren, known as the "father of
naval ordnance," arrived in the yard in 1847, when he took
charge of ordnance experiments. On the eve of the Civil War he
was given command of the yard. He was one of only two officers
assigned to the yard who did not leave in 1861 to fight for the
Confederacy. When officers of the 71st New York Regiment required
lodging in the capital, already crowded with military, Dahlgren
gave them accommodations in the Commandant's House (Tingey House,
or Quarters A, to the east of Latrobe Gate). He moved into Building
One, where he slept and dined in the room opposite his office.
During Dahlgren's residence at the office, important officials,
including the secretaries of the navy, of state, and of war, paid
frequent visits. Among the most notable of Dahlgren's visitors
was President Abraham Lincoln. The two shared a friendship that
found them often in one another's company on the Washington Navy
Yard, where they conferred about the defenses of Washington. Lincoln,
accompanied by Senator Orville H. Browning of Illinois, made a
sudden and dramatic visit to the yard on Sunday morning, March
9, 1862. As Dahlgren rose to greet the men, Lincoln announced
"Frightful news!" The President then told of the havoc
that CSS Virginia (the former USS Merrimack, which
had been burned at Norfolk to avoid capture by the South and was
subsequently rebuilt as a Confederate ironclad) had created near
Hampton Roads. Virginia had sunk U.S. frigates Congress
and Cumberland, and steam frigate Minnesota had
run aground. "The President," remembered Dahlgren, "did
not know whether we might not have a visit here, which would indeed
cap the climax." Dahlgren "could give but little comfort,"
advising that if Virginia attempted to come up the Potomac,
about all that could be done was to block the river.
Lincoln said of his visits to the Commandant's Office,
"I like to see Dahlgren. The drive to the Navy Yard is one
of my greatest pleasures. When I am depressed, I like to talk
with Dahlgren. I learn something of the preparations for defense,
and I get from him consolation and courage."
Early Architectural Changes
When first built, the Commandant's Office was a symmetrical
two-story brick building with open verandas on all four sides
on both stories. Despite changes made over the years, the basic
architectural design of the building is clearly visible.
The main entrances were through large doorways on the north
and south. Today's north entrance retains the graceful stairs
that were originally present on both sides of the building. These
major entrances were complemented by two minor doors with steps
on both the east and west sides. A central hallway ran between
the main entrances. The interior walls that divided each side
into two rooms had chimneys rising through them. This arrangement
was repeated on the second floor.
The verandas have gone through numerous changes. Their
original columns were of Doric style on the first floor, and Ionic
style on the second floor. The columns were arranged as their
modern replacements are, eight pairs on the north and south faces
and seven pairs on the west and east. A modified Tuscan design
is now represented on the columns of both floors. The original
porch balusters were turned wooden posts similar to those now
in place on the captain's walk. Victorian gingerbread slats replaced
the neoclassical balusters during the late nineteenth century.
One can still see the original coffered ceilings on the first
floor veranda. Drawings indicate that a similar design was intended
for the second story, but it was either not installed or was subsequently
The Bureau of Yards and Docks estimates for 1873 include
an entry for "The Commandants Office building thoroughly
repaired and extended." This is believed to have been the
first major work done to the building since its 1838 construction.
Building One underwent significant change in 1941 when
the structure was converted to serve as a post office and a communication
office. In 1948 it was redesigned as officers' quarters and named
Quarters J. Portions of the verandas were enclosed to create additional
living space. The first floor was divided into seven bedrooms,
two living rooms, two dining rooms, two kitchens and two bathrooms.
The central hallway was turned into closet space. The second story
saw similar changes when a living room, dining room and three
bedrooms were installed. At that time, the chimneys and the stairs
on the east side were removed. Three bachelor officers occupied
the eastern half of the first floor (Quarters J-1); two other
officers and their families lived in the western half (Quarters
J-2) and on the second floor (Quarters J-3). Additional renovation
work took place in 1962 with new plumbing and appliances, electrical
improvements, and refinished floors.
In 1976 Building One became the location of a visitor's
center for the yard. The Navy Sea Cadets began to use the building
as well. During renovation for the visitor's center, the nine-foot
ceilings were lowered, rest rooms and air conditioning were installed,
and a small auditorium was put in. The historic structure remained
in this condition until the 1992-93 renovation.
Goals of the 1993 Renovation
The aim of this renovation was to maintain the building's
architectural and historical value, adapting it to practical modern
use rather than restoring it to its original appearance. Therefore,
the renovation was restricted primarily to the building's interior.
The existing late-nineteenth century exterior, with rectilinear
columns and gingerbread slats supporting the railing, was left
intact. The slate roof and copper gutters were completely replaced.
Other exterior work, particularly the replacement of extensive
rotted wood components, is being planned.
The existing floor plan required only minor interior wall
demolition and construction to adapt it to the building's intended
primary use as office space. Upgrades included rewiring, removing
hazardous materials, and completing finish work to provide a uniform,
aesthetically pleasing appearance.
Electrical wiring throughout the building dated back to
the early part of this century. The old wiring was removed and
modern circuitry and peripheral hardware were installed. A light
metering survey aided in designing an appropriate lighting system
to replace the building's incandescent bulb fixtures. Since a
lighting system was not part of the original renovation plan,
a costly change order was required.
Lead paint removal proved to be a more daunting task than
expected, with multiple layers of lead paint found on walls, trim,
and window casements. The original plan to remove all lead paint
from the building proved to be prohibitive in cost. To prevent
a hazard to workers, priority was given to removing lead paint
from any area that would likely be disturbed during subsequent
construction. Paint that could not be removed from walls was contained
behind drywall and lead paint on window casements was painted
over, eliminating the chance of contact with it during normal
use of the building. U.S. Navy Public Works, Washington, maintains
records disclosing where hazardous materials are present, for
the benefit of anyone who may in the future do construction or
demolition work on the building.
Asbestos was found only in floor tiles in a few of the
rooms in the building. Approximately 90 percent of this material
was removed from the building. The rest was sealed beneath new
plywood subflooring, which in turn was covered with carpet. The
renovation plan accurately anticipated the extent of asbestos
removal that proved necessary.
The windows were in surprisingly good condition considering
their age. Some appear to date from the original construction,
while other were installed during past modifications. Some of
the glass panes were reset, but no alterations to the frames were
made. Removing and retracking the original windows was ruled out
because of the amount of wood deterioration and the need for better
building insulation. A future installation of double-paned windows
will add to the efficiency of the heating and air conditioning
The renovation plan called for stripping and refinishing
interior millwork. However, reproduction nineteenth-century millwork
was substituted because the wood's deteriorated condition did
not warrant refinishing. In addition, it was found that the millwork
that was removed was not original but had been installed during
modifications in the twentieth century. The newel post and handrail
on the staircase in the central hallway constitute the most striking
interior details. The renovation plan called for them to be painted
over, but an astute Navy Yard building engineer saved them from
the painter's brush at the last moment. Instead, a single coat
of clear varnish was applied, preserving their antique appearance.
Other projects included renovating the bathrooms, applying
drywall to and painting interior walls, hanging new interior doors,
and installing heating and air conditioning systems and a fire
suppression system. The original coffered ceiling is concealed
by a suspended ceiling, which hides newly installed ductwork.
The interior of the renovated Historic Commandant's Office
presents a handsome appearance, with new wall, ceiling, and floor
surfaces, complemented by new interior trim. The antique window
casements, the grand staircase, and the occasional creak from
century-and-a-half-old floors remind one that the building is
authentic. While providing working spaces for the Naval Historical
Center, the Historic Commandant's Office exemplifies over two
hundred years of proud U.S. Navy tradition.
14 October 1997