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Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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1900s to the Present

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During the Twentieth Century's first two decades, the Washington Navy Yard grew to the west and east, more than doubling its Nineteenth Century size. The first expansion, to westward in 1902, permitted the construction of a powerplant and more factory buildings to support the needs of a rapidly-growing Navy. As the First World War approached in 1916, another westward land acquisition took place and during 1917-18 the yard's limits were pushed eastward. Thus, a facility that in 1900 ran from about from Sixth Street to Ninth Street, now stretched all the way from Third to Eleventh.

 

New structures, most of them quite large, were steadily erected on the new lands and significant changes were made within the previous Navy Yard limits. The two big wooden ship houses were demolished by 1901, to be replaced by newer buildings and storage yards. The fancy pre-Civil War foundry was razed just after World War I, and many of its contemporaries went even earlier, victims of a need for more efficient use of the available space. Other old buildings were modified almost beyond recognition.

 

Big smokestacks still bore witness to coal's vital role in the facility's primary function, the manufacture of Naval guns. However, two other tall structures, steel radio antenna towers in the Yard's southern regions, showed the importance of new technologies. During the 1930s, these towers demonstrated the volatility of "hi-tech", as they were torn down, made obsolete by radio's rapid progress.

 

The 1930s also provided fresh evidence of the undiminished force of Mother Nature, when serious Potomac River flooding raised the water level of its Anacostia branch. Much of the Navy Yard's waterfront area was thus periodically, though briefly, inundated. This problem would continue into the following decades, with the modern high-water-mark established in 1942.

 

The World War II years brought on the Navy Yard's final great expansion. Two additional land parcels took its western boundary all the way to First Street. Several more large buildings were constructed, most notably in the northeastern and western parts of the facility, to allow the Yard to keep up with wartime demands for weapons production as well as scientific and engineering development.

 

These technological activities increasingly became the Yard's main functions after the War. Naval guns continued to be built, but these were nearly all smaller weapons, rapid-firing five-inch and three-inch types optimized for anti-aircraft purposes. Countering faster aircraft and submarines, and a generally more-complex tactical environment, required ever-more-capable radar, sonar, weapons directors, and other optical and electronic devices. Existing Naval Gun Factory shops were modified, and new ones established, to develop and produce this new equipment.

 

During the 1950s, guns began to be displaced by guided missiles aboard the Navy's ships, and the Gun Factory took up the manufacture of these weapons, and especially of their launchers. Late in the decade, this change in ordnance technology gave the Yard a new name: the Naval Weapons Plant. However, by this time its days as an industrial site were numbered. Weapon and electronics work was now mainly going to private enterprise and Government operated facilties were being phased out. The Naval Weapons Plant's assigned production work was completed in 1961, and the next two years saw its disestablishment and the beginning of the Navy Yard's conversion to other purposes. Washington, D.C., never much of an industrial town, had lost its largest manufacturing operation.

 

The closing of the Naval Weapons Plant in the early 1960s greatly reduced the Navy's need for land on the north side of the Anacostia River. The Navy Yard west of Sixth Street (called Isaac Hull Avenue within the Yard) was turned over to the General Services Administation, which gradually tore down many of the industrial buildings there and used others to house different Government agencies. The eastern half of the Yard, which remained in Navy hands, was transformed to an administrative, ceremonial and storage facility.

 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, plans were made to replace many of the existing factory structures with modern offices, intended for many of the Navy activities displaced when the Main Navy and Munitions Buildings were torn down. However, those operations were instead relocated to the Washington suburbs. The Navy Yard's big old buildings, reprieved by this development, were employed as warehouses, a function that kept them standing long enough to gain recognition of their inherent architectural merits. When the suburban office leases ran out in the 1990s and the Navy decided again to move some of its administrative operations to the Navy Yard, the generation-long delay ensured that the newcomers would be accomodated in the old industrial structures, massively renovated internally but retaining much of their external character.

 

In the meanwhile, other Navy functions kept the old Navy Yard busy. The euphemistically-named "Naval Administrative Unit", whose actual function was to operate the Presidential Yacht Sequoia, was based there until disbanded by order of the Carter Administration in 1977. The Navy Band, Navy and Marine Corps Historical Centers (with their associated museums and outdoor exhibits), Navy data processing and many other important support functions made their homes in the tradition-rich Navy Yard grounds. Several of the Service's senior officers had quarters there, and a grassy parade ground hosted a wide variety of ceremonies. In the mid-1980s the decommissioned destroyer Barry (DD-933) was moved to the World War II-era "finger" piers, providing a suitably "grey" presence in the Nation's Capital and enhancing the Navy Yard's public and ceremonial attractions.

 

Beginning in the 1990s, there were major renovations and new construction to prepare the Navy Yard for an influx of new tenants. Once again needing the space, the Navy began to look westward again, into its old properties west of Sixth Street. Outside the Yard's thick brick walls, the neighborhood sprouted freshly-built office buildings, serving the many private firms that accompanied the old Navy Yard's newly arrived occupants.