Naval Observatory

 

The United States Naval Observatory, and the residence of the Vice President of the United States, are located on the former estate of the Barber family, which was known as North View.

 

 

North View, as surveyed in preparation for the construction of the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1881. (U.S.N.O. Archives)

North View, as surveyed in preparation for the construction of the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1881. (U.S.N.O. Archives)

 

 

The relationship of the 1852 house, and of the earlier brick house, and the arrangement of outbuildings, and areas of cultivation. (Annual Report of the U.S. Naval Observatory, 1882, U.S.N.O. Archives)

The relationship of the 1852 house, and of the earlier brick house, and the arrangement of outbuildings, and areas of cultivation. (Annual Report of the U.S. Naval Observatory, 1882, U.S.N.O. Archives)

 

 

The neighboring property at Clifton was considered as the site of the new Naval Observatory, and the selection committee recommended that Congress appropriate $25,000 for its purchase. (“The Observatory Site: The Report of the Commission Handed to Secretary Thompson”, Washington Post, December 9, 1878, p.2)

Margaret Barber to United States, April 25, 1881, 70 1/2 acres, for $63,000, for “part of Pretty Prospects”––final s crossed out––“and otherwise called Pretty Prospect”. (DC Liber 966 (1881) f. 372-4)

It was reported that John Barber had regretted the sale after only ten days because the price was too low. Conflict was foreseen between path of Massachusetts Avenue and the new Observatory. The Superintendant’s House was built on a site that would prevent Massachusetts Avenue from encroaching on the planned circle. (Evening Star, January 18, 1890, p. 9)

North View was torn down circa 1893.

 

 

The contours of land purchased for the new Naval Observatory, in 1891. (Maps accompanying the report of the operations of the Engineer Department of the District of Columbia for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1891: compiled by Capt. W.T. Rossell, U.S. Eng’rs; compiled by Capt. J.L. Lusk, U.S. Eng’rs, [detail].)

The contours of land purchased for the new Naval Observatory, in 1891. (Maps accompanying the report of the operations of the Engineer Department of the District of Columbia for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1891: compiled by Capt. W.T. Rossell, U.S. Eng’rs; compiled by Capt. J.L. Lusk, U.S. Eng’rs, [detail].)

 

 

Before the acquisition of the adjoining parcels to create the “circle of exclusion”, the path of Massachusetts Avenue bisected the Barber property. (Map of Washington, D.C., and environs, Axel Silversparre, 1887, Library of Congress)

 

 

 

The relationship of the irregular Barber property to the planned circular shape of the Naval Observatory. (Annual Report of the U.S. Naval Observatory, 1882, U.S.N.O. Archives)

The relationship of the irregular Barber property to the planned circular shape of the Naval Observatory. (Annual Report of the U.S. Naval Observatory, 1882, U.S.N.O. Archives)

 

 

An essential requirement of the new Naval Observatory was a “circle of exclusion”, of 1000-foot radius, “to prevent the delicate instruments used in observing from being disturbed by currents of heated air and also from vibrations caused by traffic in the neighborhood and for other important reasons”.

To complete the circle the government needed to acquire small pieces of Normanstone and Dumbarton, and of the properties of Robert Weaver, Theodore Barnes, Phillip Young, and John A. Barber. Fifteen excess acres of North View, lying outside the circle, were offered for sale.  (“Circle and Boulevard––Secretary Herbert Approves Naval Observatory Plans”, Washington Post, October 20, 1894, p.3; “Naval Observatory Land to Be Sold”, Washington Post, February 6, 1895, p.3)

 

Construction of the Observatory Clock House, circa 1890; in the background, "North View". (USNO Archives)

Construction of the Observatory Clock House, circa 1890; in the background, “North View”. (USNO Archives)

 

The astronomer Stimson J. Brown and his family, on the Naval Observatory grounds, circa 1898. (USNO Archives)

The astronomer Stimson J. Brown and his family, on the Naval Observatory grounds, circa 1898. (USNO Archives)

 

The effort to reshape the irregular Barber farm into the "Circle of Exclusion" took years. (USNO Archives)

The effort to reshape the irregular Barber farm into the “Circle of Exclusion” took years. (USNO Archives)

 

The Vice President’s New Address

 

In 1929 the residence of the Superintendent of the Naval Observatory was claimed by the Chief of Naval Operations, and began to be referred to as the Admiral’s House. In 1974 the Admiral’s House, situated on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, at 3450 Massachusetts Avenue, was designated as the temporary residence of the Vice President of the United States. That’s the language used in the Washington Post for about thirty years:

“Gore held an unpublicized dinner at the Admiral’s House, his official residence on Massachusetts Avenue.” (“Elevating the Office: Gore Changes Role of No. 2 Spot”: David S. Broder, Washington Post, August 26, 1996, p.A1)

“The Naval Observatory, which opened at 3450 Massachusetts Ave. in 1893, houses many of the Navy’s precious instruments used for measuring time and astronomy. The house on its grounds was designated as the vice president’s residence in 1974.” (“Cheney’s Home Sending Bad Vibrations; Construction Blasts Have D.C. Folks Shuddering, Speculating: David Nakamura, Washington Post, December 8, 2002, p.A1)

 

Then, in 2006 a new address began to appear:

 

“In 2002, the quiet neighborhood was rocked by months of mysterious, round-the-clock blasting from the vicinity of No. 1 Observatory Circle, the official residence of the vice president.” (“In the Loop, and Next to the Vice President”: Washington Post, November 25, 2006, p.F1)

“On Massachusetts Avenue, you can catch a glimpse of Number One Observatory Circle, the official residence of vice presidents since 1974…” (“Hail to These Presidential Homes”: Washington Post, February 18, 2007, p.M8)

“During a visit to 1 Observatory Circle the week before Thanksgiving, the roses in the front garden were blooming and the white wicker furniture was still on the veranda. While workers set up a tent for the series of holiday parties the Cheneys will host, Lynne Cheney took this reporter on a tour of the home’s first floor, decorated in furnishings of cream and celadon.” (“A Family House Second to None”, Jura Koncius, Washington Post, November 27, 2008, p.H1)

 

 

 

Sources

 

Gail S. Cleere, The House on Observatory Hill; Home of the Vice President of the United States, 1989

Priscilla W. McNeil, “Pretty Prospects: The History of a Land Grant”, Washington History, Fall/Winter 2002

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________

Carlton Fletcher

 The citation and acknowledgement of my research is greatly appreciated.

All rights reserved.

 

 Questions and corrections may be directed to

carlton@gloverparkhistory.com

 

The support of the Advisory Neighborhood Council (3B) is gratefully acknowledged.