Old Naval Observatory
Walking south down 23rd Street NW, the world drops away to reveal the iconic monuments of Washington, D.C. Near the southern edge of Foggy Bottom, at 23rd and E Streets NW, the yellow and white dome of the Old Naval Observatory peeks through a sheltering screen of greenery. Today, the State Department owns the entire compound. The old Naval Observatory building, which still stands there, is now just a shell of what it used to be for a young United States.
Observatory Hill began its colonial history as a military camping ground. Later on, the site was given to the United States Navy when a law was passed that required a Depot of Charts and Instruments be built to maintain and explore the navy’s current navigational charts (Figure 7). The Depot, controlled by the Naval Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography and later renamed the Naval Observatory, managed the repair and maintenance of naval charts and instruments. What later became the Observatory, which was established through the concerted efforts of President John Quincy Adams and Lt. James Gilliss, became a “lighthouse of the sky” and brought American science up to par with European science. This was an important step for not only America but also for the nation’s capital, which was so embroiled in politics. This signaled the first link between the U.S. government and science. Along with important astronomical measurements and discoveries and standardizing time across the nation, the Observatory also transformed sea trade routes (Figure 9). Figure 4 shows one of the books in which these records and observations were published. It is difficult to learn about the old Naval Observatory and its prominence without also learning about Matthew Fontaine Maury, who served as the Superintendent there for many years. He played a huge role in the accomplishments of the institution and also the process of it becoming so respectable within the scientific community. Maury was a cartographer and astronomer, and is best known for his work in mapping the winds and the currents during his work at the Observatory. An example of his work is in Figure 3 and more about his life can be found in Figure 6. He later gave up his position as superintendent to get back in the navy.
Despite its successes, the Naval Observatory was plagued by many difficulties in its original location. Malaria from the nearby waterfront, fogs that made astronomical observations difficult, and equipment which was quickly being outdated meant that by the late 19th century, support for a change in location was strong. However, it took close to 10 years to find a viable one (Figure 8). In 1894, the Observatory moved to its new location on Massachusetts Avenue in Georgetown Heights. The 29-inch refracting telescope, seen in figure 7 and made by Alvan Clark, which was the largest telescope in the world at this time, was also moved from the Observatory’s location in Foggy Bottom to its new home on Massachusetts Avenue (Figure 7).
Following this, the hill experienced a lull in scientific research before the Naval Museum of Hygiene moved in as well as keeping the Observatory as a place for timekeeping. The museum was as much a laboratory as a place to display the technologies involved in hygiene in the growing nation, and in 1902 the Navy’s General Order no. 89 renamed it the U.S. Naval Museum of Hygiene and Medical School. Thereafter, the site became a training ground for naval medicine, and in 1906 the new naval hospital admitted its first patients. By 1905, the museum was disestablished and by the beginning of WWI, the partnership between the Navy Medical School and Washington Naval Hospital allowed the admission of soldiers that were returning home from war (Figure 8).
Following this second abandonment of the site, the National Capital Parks and Planning Commission proposed making the hill into either a park or a planetarium, but the advent of World War II stymied these plans and the hill’s buildings were instead modified to house offices for the Naval Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (Herman, 1984). In 1952, not long after the scientific activities on the hill were replaced by office work, the site was changing again. Redevelopment in this area required rezoning of previously residential and privately owned properties, continuing the trend of development at the cost of housing, evident in in other parts of Foggy Bottom and the city (Gillette, 1995). Construction north of Observatory Hill continued well into the 1960s, as the snarl of highways required connections.. In addition to cutting into housing, the highway development shaved off part of Observatory Hill’s property (U.S. Commission of Fine Arts).
Recently, the hill experienced yet another change of ownership when the Navy Department, as part of Base Realignment and Closure, handed the site over to the Department of State. With this most recent change, the Old Naval Observatory Building lost even its function as office space, and now stands derelict (Base Realignment and Closure 2005). This is an unusual state of affairs for a building in Foggy Bottom, considering the areas rampant construction, but the building’s National Historic Landmark status protects it from demolition even as exorbitant estimates for repairs and renovations prevent its renovation. As for now the buildings that make up the old naval observatory shall stand vacant until they can once again be used for the advancement of the world (Figure 5).
The Old Naval Observatory has contributed to the history and growth of Foggy Bottom and has given a neighborhood that has experienced much change a sense of community and continuity. Although the site of the Old Naval Observatory has seen a lot of change since its use began in 1790, it has continued to remain associated with the Navy and its original buildings. Although only a small reminder of community, the Navy has had great influence in Foggy Bottom (Figure 8).
Research, interpretation, and text by Abby Carter & Cole Love-Baker (2014)
Research, interpretation, and text by Meagan Moreland, Samantha Issa, Pierre Tillement, and Austin Gold (2015)
Astronomical and Meteorological Observations made at the United States Naval Observatory 1865. Washington, D.C.: G.P.O., Gelman Library: Special Collections.
Fawcett, Waldon, “U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington D.C.”, 1904, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 1989, Call number: Lot 10804.
Fawcett, Waldon. “U.S. Naval Medical School, Washington D.C.” 1908. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 1989. Call number: Lot 3261.
Gillette, Howard Jr. Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. Philadelphia: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Herman, Jan K. A Hilltop in Foggy Bottom: Home of the Old Naval Observatory and the Navy Medical Department. Washington D.C.: Navy Medical Command, Department of the Navy, 1984. Reprinted from U.S. Navy Medicine.
Maury, Matthew Fontaine. National Archives Record Group 78, Entry 1: Letters Sent, Volume 1, July 16, 1842-July 31, 1845. Maury to William Crane, 21 March 1845.
Ibid, Maury to William Crane, 24 March 1845.
Maury, Nannie Belle. “The United States Naval Observatory.” Harper’s Weekly (New York), 1894, vol. 38, 942-944. GWU Special Collections, Graphic 881 ff, contains only 943-944.
Sherwood, Suzanne Berry. Foggy Bottom 1800-1975: A Study in the Uses of an Urban Neighborhood. D.C.: George Washington University, 1974.
U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. “S&R-T&S-Inner Belt Freeway.” National Archives Record Group 66: “Project Files ca. 1941-2001.” Entry 17, Box 108.
Maury, Matthew. “Washington Map of the United States.” Map. 1860. Library of Congress, Map Collections.
U.S. Department of Defense. “Base Realignment and Closure 2005.” Last modified March 4, 2014. http://www.defense.gov/brac/.
U.S. General Services Administration “Potomac Annex 2 (Old Naval Observatory), Washington, DC.” Accessed February 9, 2014. http://www.gsa.gov/portal/ext/html/site/hb/category/25431/actionParameter/exploreByBuilding/buildingId/438#.
The C. S. Cudlip & Company Photographic Sample Book. 1885
Records of US Department of the Navy 1946-1951 “USN NO. 419979 Oct 1950. Transmitting Clock” US National Archives