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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

Introduction

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.

The Setting

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.

Early History

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 removed.

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.

Interior Alterations

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 systems.

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