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CHIPS Articles: Excavation for Future Master Time Clocks Facility Unearths Links to DC History at Naval Observatory

Excavation for Future Master Time Clocks Facility Unearths Links to DC History at Naval Observatory
By Matthew Stinson, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Washington - August 27, 2020
Construction site excavation for the new master time clocks and operations facility at the United States Naval Observatory, led by Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Washington, has unearthed structures and artifacts dating back to the nineteenth century. The structures revealed include the foundations of the mansion home of the previous property owners, the Barber family, a smokehouse used on their plantation, as well as a standpipe, or water tower, built during the construction of the new Washington Naval Observatory.

In early March, construction activity at the site of the new master time clocks and operations facility, conducted by NAVFAC Washington in partnership with contractor Environmental Chemical Corp, revealed a curious discovery. The foundation of a standpipe built circa 1892 during the construction of the new Washington Naval Observatory in preparation for its move from Foggy Bottom.

A standpipe is a metallic tank, usually of cylindrical form, with a flat bottom resting directly upon a masonry or sand foundation and used for the storage of liquids, in this case, water. The concrete foundation was 24 feet across and 7 feet deep with concrete skim coat on top showing an imprint that confirms the standpipe measured 15 feet-6 inches in diameter with 4-foot-4-inch long braces. According to an image taken in 1920 and data from similar diameter standpipes, it likely stood between 80 and 100 feet tall.

The standpipe provided water to a pair of steam pumps in the basement of the 26-inch telescope building of the Naval Observatory. The steam pumps boosted the water pressure for raising and lowering the elevating floor of the telescope building. In 1926, the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company installed a new 8-inch water main and fire system and the standpipe was sold and removed.

Then in June, “a trench was being dug and we hit a few bricks that were stacked up, so we started digging carefully with an excavator and shovels,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Julian, engineering technician, NAVFAC Washington, Public Works Department Washington. “We then realized there was a stone wall, not just bricks. We dug Monday through Thursday excavating the site with, Brian Cleven.”

Cleven is a natural resource specialist and NAVFAC Washington regional archeologist. What he and Julian unearthed was the foundation of a smokehouse used approximately 150 years ago to cure and smoke meat and fish on the Pretty Prospect plantation.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the U.S. Navy purchased portions of eight tracts of land to form the Observatory Circle, the current grounds of the United States Naval Observatory. The largest purchase was a plantation called Pretty Prospect, theretofore owned by Cornelius and Margaret Barber, who had settled on the property in 1834. According to historical maps of the area, the plantation consisted of numerous buildings, including a slave house, corncrib, hen houses, icehouse, hay shed and smokehouse. In the early 1850s, the Barbers constructed a large Italianate villa on the highest point on the property, that they called North View, as well as a large brick carriage house and a stable.

Upon Cornelius Barber’s death in 1853, Margaret Barber managed the estate until she sold it to the federal government for use as the Naval Observatory grounds in 1881. At that time, the majority of the Barber structures, including the villa, were demolished to make way for the new buildings. However, the U.S. Navy preserved the carriage house, stable, and some of the winding paths.

Experts like Cleven are tasked with analyzing and guiding the excavations of historic discoveries at NAVFAC construction sites. They are also required to report on their findings and coordinate with the preservation organizations in the locality, in this case, the Washington, D.C. Historic Preservation Office.

“The final report needs to be submitted to the Historic Preservation Office for the District of Columbia and three D.C. repositories – D.C. Archives, Washingtoniana Room at the D.C. Public Library and the Historical Society of Washington,” said Cleven.

Construction plans for the master time clocks and operations facility included sewer, electrical and telecommunication lines that ran through the site of the smokehouse remains.

“We have to determine whether our activities are going to have any effect on [a discovery] and we have to file a plan to document what we find,” said Julie Darsie, NAVFAC Washington cultural resources program manager. “If we are going to have any effect, we have to file a plan to do some mitigation.

Referring back to historical maps of the area, the smokehouse was built near the grounds where the old Barber villa, North View, used to stand. A water line for the new master time clocks and operations facility was set to run through those grounds. As part of the mitigation for the smokehouse, the NAVFAC Washington team set to the task of searching for the presumed buried foundation of the Barber villa.

Approximately five to seven feet below ground, they found it.

“Eventually we got down to a few layers of brick,” Cleven said. “That was all that remained of the foundation. Initially the water line was going to impact that, so we went back to the designers and asked if it was possible to raise that water line so that it would not disturb the foundation. With an adjustment, the designers were able to do just that in order to preserve the foundation in place.”

The effort put forth by the NAVFAC Washington team resulted in the extensive documentation of these historic structures and prevented the construction timeline for the new master time clocks and operations facility from being significantly impacted.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Daniel Julian, engineering technician, NAVFAC Washington, inspects the dig site of an unearthed 19th century smokehouse. The smokehouse was revealed during construction of the master time clocks operations facility at the United States Naval Observatory.
Construction site excavation for the new master time clocks and operations facility at the United States Naval Observatory, led by Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Washington, has unearthed structures and artifacts dating back to the nineteenth century. The artifacts include china, glass bottles and pottery among other items and are a snapshot to past life in the area.
United States Naval Observatory as it appeared to an artist in 1894. Visible in the center background is the standpipe (Naval History and Heritage Command NH 116121). The foundation of the standpipe was discovered by NAVFAC Washington experts during the construction of the new master time clocks operations facility at the United States Naval Observatory.
Naval Observatory, circa 1920 (Naval History and Heritage Command NH 91038)
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