Naval Observatory

Some notes on the United States Naval Observatory, in relation to its neighborhood.

 

 The present location of the United States Naval Observatory, which has been at 3450 Massachusetts Avenue NW since 1893, is best understood by comparison its prior location at 23rd and E Street NW, where it had been in operation since 1844. Whatever the reasons for the choice of that first site, its proximity to the Potomac River proved to be a liability. “Why the neighborhood was called Foggy Bottom became apparent every time the astronomers had to suspend work when swirling mists obscured the heavens.” But swirling mists did not entirely prevent astronomic observations (such as the discovery the moons of Mars in 1877), and would have been unlikely to persuade Congress to pay for another observatory, had the river had no other effect on those who worked near its banks.

Each year, from May through the middle of October, the astronomers suffered from malaria “brought on by the swamp at the foot of [what was now called] Observatory Hill”… to the extent that the Observatory’s history is a litany of premature death, chronic sickness, and lost workdays”. Although the role of mosquitoes had not yet been discovered, the connection between “insalubrity” and the nearby marsh was nevertheless unmistakable: the “location of the Observatory is unhealthful, caused, as I think, by the malaria from the shores of the Potomac, from which no artificial means will secure it.” It was the premature deaths, deemed to have been hastened by malaria, of a succession of Naval Observatory superintendents that finally made the status quo indefensible.

In the same year that Asaph Hall discovered the moons of Mars, Congress established a commission to identify a new site. It was agreed that the observatory “should be removed to the high ground north of the city… not near factories or dwellings where chimney smoke… would obscure the clearness of vision, the traffic would shake the instruments, and some high structure if placed upon the meridian near our instruments might hide a useful part of the heavens.” The question of malaria––literally, bad air––was addressed by the stipulation of high ground: according to the prevailing theory of disease, higher elevations, cooled by “salubrious” breezes, were free of the fevers caused by the miasmatic exhalations of low-lying areas near the river.

The commission invited sealed proposals from Washington residents with land to sell. Seventy-eight proposals came in, of which all but five were eliminated. Another year and a half went by before Congress appropriated money to purchase North View, the Barber estate, north of Georgetown. Construction took place in 1887-8, and the actual move was not until 1893, when North View was torn down.

The selection committee was impressed by the fact that “it is remote from any public road… so that it enjoys the inestimable advantages of seclusion, quiet, and freedom from disturbance either by frequent visitors or by passing vehicles.” An essential requirement of the new Naval Observatory would be the creation of  a “circle of exclusion”, of a 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”. The Superintendent’s House was therefore built at a point specifically chosen to require Massachusetts Avenue––then still being planned––to accomodate the circle.  The government also needed to acquire small pieces of Normanstone and Dumbarton, and of the properties of Robert Weaver, Theodore Barnes, Phillip Young, and John A. Barber, to complete the circle. Fifteen excess acres of North View, lying outside the circle, were offered for sale.

 

(“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; Evening Star, January 18, 1890, p. 9; “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; Gail S. Cleere, The House on Observatory Hill, Home of the Vice President of the United States, 1989; Jan K. Herman, A Hilltop in Foggy Bottom: Home of the Old Naval Observatory and the Naval Medical Command, Department of the Navy, 1996. For the definitive history of the observatory and its mission, see Steven J. Dick, Sky and Ocean Joined: The US Naval Observatory, 1830-2000, 2003; and USNO: A Brief History, USNO: Command History. Thanks to Geoff Chester, Public Affairs Officer, USNO)

 

 

 

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].)

An 1891 map shows the irregular outline of the land purchased for the new Naval Observatory. Access was from Wisconsin Avenue, as Massachusetts Avenue had not yet crossed Rock Creek. (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 deflection in the path of Massachusetts Avenue occasioned by the planned Circle of Exclusion. (Annual Report of the U.S. Naval Observatory, 1882, U.S.N.O. 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 observatory required purchase negotiations and condemnation proceedings. (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 topography of the Barber Estate, 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 1852 house called North View (far left), its outbuildings, and some areas of cultivation. The building marked Negro House is a reminder that the owner of Northview was a slaveholder. (Annual Report of the U.S. Naval Observatory, 1882, U.S.N.O. Archives)

 

 

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)

 

Real Estate

From the point of view of developers of the Kengla estate, the selection of the nearby Barber property for the observatory, greatly enhanced the prestige of an area associated with slaughterhouses, and with the Industrial Home School. Before the astronomers had even made the move the new Naval Observatory had become a point of reference for residential development north of Georgetown––”This property is in the vicinity of the new Naval Observatory”––and by 1909, when a developer purchased seven and a half acres on the west side of Tunlaw Road, he gave his subdivision a name that would capitalize on the prestige of the nearby institution: Observatory Heights. (Sunday Herald, October 26, 1890, p.2; Washington Herald, July 11, 1909, Southern Progress section, p.2)

East of Tunlaw Road the name Naval Observatory Heights made a brief appearance. “Elie Fabrie has begun the construction of three two-story brick dwellings, costing $2,500 each, in the new subdivision of the Naval Observatory Heights. The dwellings will be known as 2544 and 2548 Wisconsin avenue, and 2547 Thirty-seventh street.” (Washington Times, March 9, 1910, p.16; “Remarkably Attractive Homes Opposite Naval Observatory Grounds”, Star, September 17, 1910)

In 1911 advertisements began to appear for row-houses on Observatory Place––the original name of the east-west leg of Hall Place––in the Hall Tract, on the east side of Hall Place, on W Place, and on Wisconsin Avenue, “in a section that is rapidly developing, just south of the beautiful grounds of the Naval Observatory.” “The Observatory Apartments” was the name of the first apartment building in the neighborhood, at 2300 Wisconsin Avenue. (Star, September 16 and 23, November 4 and 23, 1911; “Building Active in Section of City Near Georgetown––Large Number of Houses Being Constructed in the Hall Tract”, Washington Times, September 23, 1911, p.8; “Well-known Washington Apartment Houses”, Washington Post, September 9, 16, 1917, pp. R2, R3)

The astronomer Asaph Hall neither lived on, nor bequeathed his name to, Hall Place, but a number of astronomers did. The first was Herbert R. Morgan, who bought a house at 3507 Observatory Place [now 2252 Hall Place] in 1911. Morgan was mainly concerned with the orbits of comets and asteroids. Other astronomers on Hall Place include Chester B. Watts (2250 Hall Place), a leader in positional astronomy and instrument design; John Hammond (2237 Hall Place) who was in charge of the 26-inch equatorial telescope (and walked to work every night); Wallace Eckert (2232 Hall Place), who adapted commercial machines, such as credit balancing accounting machines, to compute numerical solutions of astronomical data, and worked on development of a large-scale general-purpose electronic computer at IBM; and Gerald Clemence (2232 Hall Place), who was called “The Keeper of Mars” for his twenty-year project to produce the best general theory of the motion of that planet.

 

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 Naval Observatory] was our private playground, because it wasn’t locked. All the children walked down Observatory Lane, and we used to play under the old oak tree, the big one that now has a piece of cement in it, but which was even a bigger tree then, and there was a bench under it. Sometimes we got into the buildings, particularly the main building, and also the one with the biggest telescope at that time.”

“And there was an old airplane [on the grounds] that was left over from World War I that we clambered onto. I don’t know what kind of plane it was, except we would pick persimmons from the old persimmon tree there, climb into the plane. some of the boys would manage to make the wings flap. I was never quite clever enough to do that.”

“Well, then I remember having a boyfriend, and we used to walk around those grounds at night when I was approximately 25. It was a great, nice, quiet place to sit on that bench over there. It was completely open as late as 1935. I’m sure, and probably until 1940.”

 

(From an interview with Margaret Woodward, March 4, 1988, by Steven J. Dick and David K. Scott, U.S. Naval Observatory Oral History Program. The Annual Report US Naval Observatory, July 1, 1940, confirms Woodward’s memory: Superintendent Capt. J.F. Hellweg laments the lack of fencing around the observatory grounds. In the following year’s report he indicates that a fence had been erected. )

 

 

 

“Superintendent’s Dwelling, U.S. Naval Observatory, Georgetown Heights, D.C.” Elevation by Leon Dessez, 1891. (US Naval Observatory 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. As it was situated on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, at 3450 Massachusetts Avenue, that was the Admiral’s House, as well. In 1974 the Admiral’s House, was designated as the temporary residence of the vice president of the United States, until a permanent residence was legislatively decided on.

Judging by the press, the name and address of the house were unaffected by its new tenant––“Gore held an unpublicized dinner at the Admiral’s House, his official residence on Massachusetts Avenue”––and this was still the case a quarter-century after the change––“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.”

Late in 2006, however, the vice president’s residence began to style itself Number One Observatory Circle, and the rebranding––cemented with the creation of a Wikipedia page––began to be reflected in the press.

 

(Gail S. Cleere, The House on Observatory Hill; Home of the Vice President of the United States, 1989; “Elevating the Office: Gore Changes Role of No. 2 Spot”, Washington Post, August 26, 1996, p.A1; “Cheney’s Home Sending Bad Vibrations”, Washington Post, December 8, 2002, p.A1; “In the Loop, and Next to the Vice President”: Washington Post, November 25, 2006, p.F1; “Hail to These Presidential Homes”: Washington Post, February 18, 2007, p.M8; “A Family House Second to None”, Washington Post, November 27, 2008, p.H1)

 

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________

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.