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 of construction.

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 north-south ones.

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 structures.

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 functions.



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 Yard.

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


Published:Mon Jan 05 08:48:44 EST 2015