The Latrobe Gate was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. This history was compiled when the building was nominated.
The main entrance to the Navy Yard is now at 9th and M Streets S.E.; use of the Latrobe Gate is restricted to residents of flag officers quarters.
The Main Gate into the Washington Navy Yard lies at the juncture of the Eighth Street axis and M Street in Southeast Washington. It is a Greek Revival structure which has been incorporated into the ground story of a three-story late Victorian building. The gate was designed by Benjamin Latrobe in 1804 and was one of the first structures built at the Washington Navy Yard. It is a Flemish-bond brick structure which has been heavily stuccoed. The Victorian building which incorporates it is also of brick which is painted white. It was completed in 1881. The architect is unknown.
Although the original Latrobe drawings for the Main Gate have not been located, we have a fairly good idea of its appearance from contemporary descriptions and from measured drawings made before the Victorian addition. It was conceived as a double gateway with north and south facades built 40 feet apart, connected by a double colonnade, and covered by a hipped roof. Vehicular traffic passed through the center of the gate and pedestrian traffic through either side.
The north facade was composed of two Greek Doric columns (set 10 feet apart) and two flanking pylons across the top of which ran an architrave frieze and parapet wall. The parapet wall was raised slightly higher in the area spanning the two columns to support the crowning feature of the design, an eagle displayed "close sinister," grasping an anchor in talon. This sculpture was carved by Giuseppi Franzoni of Pisa, Italy, and mounted on the gate in 1806. Inset in each pylon was a rectangular panel with an anchor design carved in bas-relief. Separate iron gates opened between each column and its neighboring pylon to regulate pedestrian traffic.
Much of the southern facade was taken up by a single large semi-circular arch rising almost from ground level to a height of 12 feet and spanning a 20 foot roadway beneath. The arch was buttressed by two flanking pylons pierced by arched pedestrian entrances. Across the entire facade ran an architrave, frieze and parapet wall.
Connecting the north and south facades was a double colonnade. These Doric columns bordered either side of the roadway and shared a common border with each pedestrian walkway. Covering the structure was a low-pitched hipped roof which leveled at is sides for drainage. To the east and west of the gate were one-story brick guard lodges. These opened onto the passage between the north and south facades but were visible only from the south.
The first major alteration of the guard lodges occurred in 1823 when an additional story was added to provide more space for the Marine officers stationed there. This addition, however, is said to have "spoiled the classic proportions of the gateway." The resulting contrast in the color of the newer bricks with the older first story disturbed a later Commandant of the Yard, and in 1830 some white paint which was "no longer suitable for painting ships" was used to create a uniform facade.
In 1880 and 1881 the gate lodges were demolished and a large building was constructed around the gate, again, to provide more space for the Marines. It extended across the top of the gate for two stories and on either side of it for three stories. This new structure left most of the old gate intact, with the exception of the eagle, the old roof and the parapet wall. Stylistically it was basically a Victorian melange of Classical and Italianate motifs. The north facade of this brick building has a rusticated ground story and is divided on the upper stories by pilasters of the colossal order. Above the pilasters run an architrave and a frieze ornamented by a modified triglyph and metope design. There is one large pediment atop the central block which is flanked by two projecting square Italianate towers. Also projecting from the front facade are two smaller pedimented end pavilions. The facade follows much the same pattern on the south as it does on the north, but lacks the central pediment and flanking towers. In recent times enclosed clapboard porches have been attached to either side of the south facade, masking much of the detail on each of the three stories.
The Joint Committee on Landmarks has designated the Main Gate of the Washington Navy Yard a Category II Landmark which contributes significantly to the cultural heritage and visual beauty of the District of Columbia. Designed by Benjamin Latrobe, one of America's foremost early architects, and built in 1805-06, the Main Gate is probably the oldest extant example of Greek Revival architecture in the country. It was one of the first structures built at the Washington Navy Yard and has been in continuous use as the principal entrance to the Yard since 1806. The Main Gate is a noteworthy architectural design, displaying both an imaginative use of Greek forms and a well-conceived plan. In spite of substantial alterations to the structure which occurred in 1880 and 1881 when a large, three-story, late Victorian building was constructed around and over it, the Main Gate merits listing in the National Register.
The Washington Navy Yard was this country's most important early naval yard. Land for the installation was acquired in 1799 and 1800, and in 1802 President Jefferson asked Benjamin Latrobe to draw up plans for a dry dock and repair facility at the Yard. Congress rejected Latrobe's plans, but Jefferson persuaded Latrobe to take the post of Surveyor of the Public Buildings of the United States in 1803, although Latrobe did not establish a permanent residence in Washington until 1807.
In 1804 after disputes with the Tripoli pirates and the European powers provided an impetus for naval construction, Latrobe was designated "Engineer of the Navy Department" and asked to draw up a master plan for the sparsely developed Washington Navy Yard. The plan was completed in 1804, and construction began in 1805.
Work on the Main Gate was started in 1805 and completed in 1806. It was one of the first Latrobe structures completed at the Navy Yard and the only extant structure definitely attributable to Latrobe. Writing to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith in 1804, Latrobe states:
"The design of the main gate of the entrance to the navy yard has been made with a view to the greatest economy compatible with permanence and appearance worthy of the situation. This gate will fall exactly into the range of the Georgia Avenue (now Potomac Avenue) as well as of the Eighth Street east of the Capitol, one of the principle streets of this part of the city."
Not everyone agreed that the Main Gate presented an appearance "worthy of the situation" for this Latrobe design was ahead of its time. With his daring use of an arch rising directly from the ground and a simple architrave and frieze without a pediment, Latrobe showed his independence of archeological precedent, and this was criticized by traditionalists like William Thornton who saw the Gate as a "monument to bad taste and design." In a well- publicized attack Thornton maintained that the eagle atop the Latrobe gate was "more like a fat goose" and that the anchors were "fitter for a cock boat than a gun boat." He then went on to say that "not until the extinction of time will such an arch ever be made again."
The Greek character of the Main Gate foreshadowed the coming of a whole movement in American architectural thinking, which adopted the character of Greek design as symbolic of our American Republic's kinship with the ideals of that ancient democratic state.
The Main Gate has been involved in the historic events of the Navy Yard from its earliest days. It is one of the few structures to have escaped the fire in 1814 when the British invaded Washington. Many famous visitors to the Yard have passed through this entrance, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when they visited Washington in 1939, and among the many notables to receive honors at the gate was President Warren Harding.
14 October 1997