Creating a virtual candlelight tour of the Washington Navy Yard

Architectural Reconstruction Project-Our assignment for this week was a recreate a historic neighborhood using a historic map overlaid on a Google Earth map. We were then to recreate some of the buildings in this neighborhood using Google Sketch-Up. I’ve spent the better part of a decade in one particular neighborhood, the Washington Navy Yard, our nation’s oldest shore establishment. I was particularly interested about some of the buildings in portraits done of the Yard in 1861 and 1862 and some early photographs taken at the same time.
Navy Yard-1861 Washington Navy Yard-1862
This dry dock is no longer in existence, and the facade of the Commandant’s Office has changed drastically in 150 years.  I found an 1858 map of the Navy Yard in the Habs-Haer website gave a footprint for both of these buildings, so I decided to try and recreate them in a attempt to help tell the early maritime history of the Washington Navy Yard.
Haebs Haer map of the Yard-1858
This is hard to do as its been a “paperwork base” since the end of World War II. As there are no three-masted ships that sail in to the Navy Yard to rigging work any longer, visitors to the base have a hard time picturing its rich maritime history. Every fall I conduct two candlelight tours of the Washington Navy Yard, trying to impress upon the folks that attend that the Yard as once the site of a great deal of maritime traffic. As the large buildings that were constructed to cater to the needs of these ships are no longer at the Yard, I have a difficult time getting this concept across to people.

The Washington Navy Yard-Early History-The Washington Navy Yard was established somewhere around 1803 on a tract of land on the Eastern Branch river in Southeast DC. Our founding fathers, suspicious of a large standing military force, approved the tract of land (initially set aside for a future Navy Yard by George Washington in 1798) because could be built and maintained under the watchful eye of Congress, located just north on Capital Hill. The first commandant of the Navy Yard, a distinguished naval officer during the American Revolution, thought the site was perfect for the country’s first shore establishment as it lay near abundant supplies of timber and possessed a suitable waterfront from which to participate in the growing maritime trade in the United States.

The Drydock-Shipbuilding at the Washington Navy Yard in the 1800′s-Tingey remained the Commandant of the Navy Yard until after the War of 1812, and oversaw must of the construction on the initial building on the base. Ironically, he gave the order to burn those buildings down when the British invaded Washington DC in 1814. He passed his love the the Yard, it’s employees and the fledgling United States Navy down to future Commandants, who oversaw much of the Navy Yard’s construction, a great deal of which took place between 1815 and 1860. During this time a dry dock was built at the Yard, along with several large cannon forges and carpentry ships, all meant to help outfit the biggest ships of the American fleet. Ships like Constitution and Constellation had their mast work and rigging replaced at the Yard and smaller warships, like sloops and gunboats were constructed along the waterfront. It’s hard for today’s visitor’s to the Washington Navy Yard to imagine the dry dock sitting on the waterfront.
Navy Yard 1899 Navy Yard 1901-demolished dry dock on right side of picture
Nothing remains of it, except the winch house, which controlled the pulley system that hoisted the ships into the building. The dock must have been built over the slip that now hold the CNO’s barge. This slip would have been a great deal larger in 1858. The drydock was destroyed in 1900 or 1901, which makes since. With a more modern facilities for drydocking were needed for a more modern fleet. Larger ships would have increasing difficulty navigating the shallow waters of the Anacostia too. During this time Western European powers were also developing top notch facilities to develop and test new hull designs for warships. Determined to keep the pace with the rest of the industrialized world, plans were developed to build an experimental model basin at the Washington Navy Yard. The Waterfront of the Navy Yard was also expanding. In 1858 the drydock was the most eastern point on the Yard. Today it extends three blocks further. There was no room for obsolete workshops.

The Commandant’s Office (Building 1)-In 1836 the Commandant’s office was built in the center of the Washington Navy Yard. Built in brick in a Flemish bond style, this small structure was situated in the middle of the hub of activity of the Navy Yard so whichever Commandant was running the Yard at the time would have full view of the major projects being worked on. While the structure looks like the house, it was never used as a home except by one Commandant, John Dalghren.John Dalghren was made Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard in the 1850′s and remained at the post almost until the end of the Civil War. Many historians believe that he was Lincoln’s most trusted military adviser, and that the President was visiting his friend the afternoon of the day that he was assassinated. Dalghren is known as the “father of naval ordinance,” and he loved being the first to test the latest weapon being developed at the Navy Yard. He practically live in his office, and it was no hardship for him to give up the Commandant’s house, located just to the Northeast of his office on the Yard when housing for military officers in Washington was at a shortage during the Civil War.Today the Commandant’s office is on the National Register of Historic Buildings. It underwent a major renovation about three years ago to try and repair years of the neglect. The architects working on the project were required to leave the brick structure intact and return the building to as close to what it looked like before the renovation began, albeit more structurally sound. You’ll notice in the portrait of the Yard done in 1862 that there were no porches around the building. Those were added in the early 20th century. Somewhere along that time too the bottom floor of the building became the basement level and the second floor became the ground floor. Quite a bit of construction work was being completed at the Navy Yard at this time, including the building of the breech mechanism shop of the naval gun factory to the left of the building (if standing with your back to the river.) A rail line was also built through the center of the Yard for the transport of large objects. Although I couldn’t find any conclusive documentation about the change of the building, on can assume the layout of the land was changing as these projects were taken on.

The Reconstruction-

Drydock and Commandant’s Office-looking north reconstruction-b.jpg reconstruction-looking southwest.jpg inside of drydock drydock interior close-up
I know it doesn’t look like much, but this is the product of approx. 30 hours of work. Google Sketch-Up is not quite as intuitive as you’d think something that free for public download would be. I was telling a friend today that I probably would have had an easier time with the program if it was a little less like Auto-Cad and a little more like Photoshop, maybe even illustrator. I chose to leave the reconstruction sitting on the Habs-Haer map, which is overlaid on the Google Earth map. I thought this would allow some of the methods I used to complete this project better. I set out to trying to make sure I had the right measurements for the building. I have some of the measurements from the map, and some of the portraits of the Yard at this time. When I started creating the buildings using the measurements though, I found it wasn’t syncing with the map. I know the map is over-laid correctly because of the Commandant’s office building…it’s never moved. That was the foundation I used to line up the two maps. In the end, I went with a combination of the two-a cross between the footprint and what the map measurements were telling me.I made a effort to keep the building symmetrical, but I think my sides are a bit off. In an effort to get all of my wall to come together in some places were was some tweaking that needed to be done. I spent the most time on the drydock by far. I had a hell of a time constructing the roof. The image I’ve uploaded contains about the 5th try to get the building right. What I discovered in all of my efforts though is that the systematic approach to building is needed to by Sketch-Up work, and you have to be looking at the facade you are building head on, not from an angle. This project has definitely taught me how builders and architects think.As I was building the structures too I was also making decisions on how they should look based on the history of the community I chose. I also rethought my previous notions of this time period in the Navy Yard’s history and why the building like the drydock had the lifespan that they did. I feel like I can give a better idea of the maritime culture of the Anacostia River to our visitors because I now have a visual for what it looked like.

1 Comment

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One response to “Creating a virtual candlelight tour of the Washington Navy Yard

  1. Karin — nice work on the Navy yard reconstruction. Your work is thorough and I’m convinced you know your stuff when it comes to the Navy Yard! Also, the added views of the drydock really give a great perspective. Nice work.

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