Sometime this year, the Navy will turn over the Old Naval Observatory at 23rd and E streets NW in Foggy Bottom to the State Department. The turnover is part of the 2005 base realignment and closure legislation that has led to so much dramatic change in the region.
This diminutive, yellow-brick building with the white dome, just a few blocks north of the Lincoln Memorial, is virtually unknown to most Americans. Few Washington-area residents are aware of its prestigious heritage, and undoubtedly many have never even seen it. This should be changed. The 167-year-old structure once hummed with scientific activity. During its heyday in the mid-19th century, astronomers and oceanographers working there helped to set this nation on the path to becoming a scientific powerhouse.
Between 1844 and 1893 — a time in American history of dramatic growth and expansion — the U.S. Naval Observatory was known as one of the nation’s foremost scientific institutions. At its headquarters on a hilltop above the Potomac, its first superintendent, Matthew Fontaine Maury, developed the modern science of oceanography. Young officers, recently graduated from the Naval Academy, learned celestial navigation at the site. Indeed, many of them would go on to staff two navies during the Civil War, Union and Confederate. Two lieutenants who worked there as colleagues — John Brooke of Florida and John Worden of New York — would play a key role as enemies in the legendary clash between the ironclad USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (the ex-Merrimack).
In the years after the Civil War, the institution became one of the world’s leading astronomical laboratories, highlighted by astronomer Asaph Hall’s discovery there in 1877 of the two moons of Mars. The observatory’s scientists traveled to the far corners of the globe, recording solar and lunar eclipses and transits of Venus across the sun. At home, its timepieces, calibrated from astronomical observations, marked standard time for America’s railroads and many of its cities.
When the institution that John Quincy Adams called the “Lighthouse of the Sky” opened in 1844, the United States was struggling to establish its scientific independence. Almost 50 years later, in no small measure because of the observatory, that dream had been fully achieved.
But now the tired old building has fallen on hard times. The building’s occupant — the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery — is leaving, and the State Department will take over the site. The building has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, but that honor does not guarantee survival. Many a National Historic Landmark has disappeared not by the wrecker’s ball but through sheer indifference.
One glance at the building’s peeling paint and shabby demeanor might give the impression that the Navy has not been the best caretaker — and the deteriorating physical structure validates this observation. To be sure, one of the reasons for the Navy’s abandonment of the property is the cost of maintaining “old” buildings, and cost-cutting logic leads to this conclusion. After more than 25 years of neglect, it should not be surprising that the structure appears threadbare. With shrinking federal budgets, what kind of landlords will the diplomats turn out to be?
In the end, though, the building is not really a Navy property or a State Department property. It is a national treasure worthy of preservation. Regardless of what agency has jurisdiction over the site, the Old Observatory belongs to the people and should be open to the public as a museum that could showcase the noble scientific work that occurred within its walls. Should tight budgets make us oblivious to our heritage? Do we not owe posterity the legacy of this iconic institution?
During the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the Old Naval Observatory’s connection to that conflict should also be recognized. On Aug. 22, 1863, barely a month and a half after the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln sought relief from the cares of his office by peering at the night sky through one of its telescopes. If any structure visited by the Great Emancipator could be considered hallowed ground, then the Old Naval Observatory clearly is one of those sacred places.
The Old Naval Hospital on Capitol Hill, approved for construction by President Lincoln, has been saved by community dedication and corporate interests. Their generous contributions have paid off in a commendable result, a proud historic building open for public use. Should not the Old Naval Observatory be equally worthy of our attention?
The writer is executive director of the Society for the History of Navy Medicine.