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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
805 KIDDER BREESE SE -- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060

Building One (Commandant's Office)

The Historic Commandant's Office was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. This history was compiled when the building was nominated.

In 1993, Building One, designated The Middendorf Building and Historic Commandant's Office, became working space for several offices of the Naval Historical Center.

Description

The Commandants's Office, and 1837-38 building with bellcast hipped roof, occupies an important location at the Washington Naval Yard. This 2-story brick building surrounded by 2-story frame porches is the visual terminus of Dahlgren Avenue, the yard's major axis. There is an unobstructed view of the building's north facade from the Anacostia River. The setting and appearance of this building have been greatly altered but not to such an extent that its early 19th century scale and massing have been obscured.

The freestanding building is located about 15 feet east of Building 76. It forms part of the south enclosure of Montgomery Square, an open space surrounded largely by two and three story, functional, brick industrial buildings. The square in the 19th century had grass and trees, but is now covered with asphalt. South of the Commandant's Office was Trophy Park, an area with grass, trees, and a circular arrangement of cannons. When this park was eliminated between 1941 and 1947, the area was covered with asphalt.

The building has been significantly altered since its completion in 1838 but drawings, photographs, and inspection permit a reasonably accurate description of the original design. The rectangular, two-story building with high foundation measured approximately 49 feet (5 bays) on the north and south sides and 44 feet (4 bays) on the east and west. The red brick walls were laid in Flemish bond and around their entire perimeter was a two- story frame porch. Covering the main block and porch was a low, bellcast hipped roof broken on the east and west slopes by interior chimneys. Terminating the roof was a deck surrounded by a balustrade, probably with heavy turned balusters. The porch had either plain piers or Doric columns and had railings with plain balusters. The south facade had 6 piers or columns. There was a wide cornice surmounted by a parapet.

The facades were evenly divided into bays. Inspection reveals that openings had brick jack arches; the first story had 9/9-light windows, and the second had 6/6-light windows. Doorways opening onto the porch on the first and second stories had three light transoms and paneled reveals. Drawings show that the building had a central hall running north-south with two rooms at each side. In the hall was a straight stair with three flights going to the attic. In the attic was a stair to the deck on the roof.

Drawings dated August 1873 suggest that the porch's columns or piers and the cornice were probably replaced in 1873. A photograph of the building in the late 19th century shows a two-story porch with paired columns and heavy turned railing. Each column stands on a paneled pedestal the height of the railing. On the first story are Doric columns and on the second are Ionic. At the basement level pairs of columns and corner groupings of three columns are supported on brick plinths. The east and west facades had seven pairs of columns and the north and south had eight pairs. At the south was a central entrance stair with heavy railing.

In 1895-96 the porch was replaced again. This porch which has largely been enclosed is present today. The brick plinths and paired column arrangement of 1873 were retained and probably the 1873 dentiled cornice. The 1895-96 porch has square columns with chamfered corners above the railing. The railing had jigsaw cutouts. At the north a projecting, one-story entrance porch has a gable roof with a low pediment end supported by square columns on paneled pedestals. At the center of the south facade is a projecting two-story porch with stairs.

Exterior modifications since 1895 include the removal of the chimneys in 1948. Most of the porch has been enclosed by weatherboarding. Openings in the enclosed sections are irregularly placed and the square columns are partially visible. At present the only sections of the brick building visible are the east side of the first story north facade which has a central doorway separated from a doorway to the east by a 9/9-light window, the second story of the north facade which has four 6/6- light windows and a central doorway with French doors, the second story of the east facade which has doorways at the north and south separated by two 6/6-light windows, and the two east bays of the second story of the south facade with two 6/6-light windows. It is possible that window sash and door trim are original. The doors are not.

The floor plan has been greatly changed since the building was converted into apartments so that there is little visual evidence of the original arrangement. Interior trim dates from the twentieth century, except the newel of the stair which probably has a mid-19th century date.

Significance

The Joint Committee on Landmarks has designated the Commandant's Office at the Washington Navy Yard, also known as Building #1 and Quarters J, a Category II Landmark of importance which contributes significantly to the cultural heritage and visual beauty of the District of Columbia. Since its construction in 1837-38, this two-story brick building surrounded by a two- story frame porch, has been the terminus of Dahlgren Avenue, the installation's main axis. As such, it is a major visual focal point of the Yard. It has played a vital, historical role in the Yard's overall design and for many years was its administrative center, serving as the Commandant's office.

The Commandant's Office was constructed in 1837-38, not 1848 as has been previously claimed. Although the building is listed on the Yard's nineteenth century maps as the Commandant's Office, it was constructed not solely for the Commandant's use, but for use as office space by all of the Yard's officers.

Due in part to the more comprehensive use of this building than the term Commandant's Office implies, the search for this structure's construction date has been somewhat complex. The building is listed as a proposed improvement in an 1828 plan for the Yard, and is first shown in an 1842 map; thus, it must have been constructed in this period. However, the annual reports of the Secretary of the Navy for those years include no proposal for the construction of a Commandant's Office (although there is no itemized list of proposed improvements for the years 1829 and 1830). Proposed improvements, however, do include $12,500 in 1837 and $2,000 in 1838 for a "Building for officers."

George Watterson's description of the Washington Navy Yard in his 1842 copyrighted New Guide to Washington indicates that this "Building for officers" was the Commandant's Office: "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." The contract for this building's construction is not included in the National Archives' collection of Navy Yard contracts, but a review of the correspondence of the Washington Navy Yard's Commandant for 1837 and 1838 may provide additional information on the building.

The Commandant's Office was an essential addition to the Yard's overall design. In the original plan, and 1804 design by Benjamin Latrobe, Washington's important Eighth Street Axis (East) was given a prominent role by the construction of the Yard's Main Gate at the point at which the street penetrated the Yard's northern border. The Yard's main avenue (now Dahlgren Avenue) is a continuation of this street, and its line was defined by the Tripoli Monument in 1808 under the supervision of Latrobe. The removal of the Monument to the Capitol Grounds in 1831 would have left a major gap in the Yard's design if not for the construction of the Commandant's Office. As is indicated in the 1828 improvement plan, the proposed building was intended to both define and provide a terminus for Dahlgren Avenue.

The visual impact of the Commandant's Office was strengthened by the creation of Trophy Park in its front yard on the south side of the building. The park "consisted of a semi-circle of captured Naval cannons graduated from the center by size with other guns and stacks of round shot placed between this semi-circle and the office."

This park, like the office, first appears on the 1842 map of the Yard, but was eliminated some time between 1941 and 1947.

Old plans of the yard indicate that this building has served as the office of the Commandant for most of its existence. However, in 1861, John Dahlgren, the Yard's most illustrious figure, ate and slept in a room in the building, as the Commandant's House was occupied by officers of the 71st Regiment. It is listed on a 1947 plan of the Yard as a post office and communications center. In 1948 it was remodeled for use as living quarters.

02 March 1997