Old Naval Observatory

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Old Naval Observatory
US Naval Observatory (Washington, District of Columbia).jpg
Old Naval Observatory is located in Washington, D.C.
Old Naval Observatory
Location 23rd Street and E Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.
Coordinates 38°53′42″N 77°3′7″W / 38.89500°N 77.05194°W / 38.89500; -77.05194Coordinates: 38°53′42″N 77°3′7″W / 38.89500°N 77.05194°W / 38.89500; -77.05194
Built 1844
Architect James Gilliss
Architectural style No Style Listed
NRHP Reference # 66000864
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966[1]
Designated NHL January 12, 1965[2]

Old Naval Observatory is an historic site in Northwest, Washington, D.C..


America—in its infancy at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries—had to rely on Britain for sea charts and astronomical and navigational equipment, which were essential for the transatlantic trade as well as necessary for the republic’s young Navy. In December 1825, President John Quincy Adams in his State of the Union Address, requested that Congress fund an observatory so the young nation could be on a par with European astronomical research. Adams made the case for modernization urging the United States to take the lead in the development of the arts and sciences. Congress consistently turned down his many requests. In 1831, members of the Board of Navy Commissioners were convinced of the need for a depot for charts and instruments. Congress finally passed a bill allotting $25,000 to build a depot for the Navy’s charts and instruments. It took another 16 years for Congress to grant funding for the construction of an observatory, library, and offices with the stipulation that it could not be called an “observatory. ” It was to be called the Depot of Charts and Instruments. Not until 1854 would it become officially known as the U. S. Observatory and Hydrographical Office.

Navy LT Matthew Fontaine Maury became the Observatory’s first Superintendent. Among his priorities was the first formal scientific investigation of ocean currents with his chief duty the updating of century old and inaccurate ocean charts. The completion of Maury’s Pilot chart of the North Atlantic in 1853 helped to predict the frequency and direction of winds each month of the year in every 5- degree square of ocean. Maury’s Wind and Current Charts, calculated and assembled between 1847 and 1860, became essential to navigation. Using them, clipper ship captains shaved nearly seven weeks off the passage from New York to San Francisco. Maury also pursued meteorology, astronomy, geodesy, and precise timekeeping. The Master Clock of the United States—from which all other national time standards were derived—was maintained at the Naval Observatory.

Beginning in the 1940s, a ritual took place on the grounds of the Observatory: at 11:50 a. m., a large black canvas ball was raised from the hilltop dome of the Observatory and dropped at noon. It was a moment for interested parties to set their clocks and timepieces. During this age of rapid railroad construction in the mid-19th century, reliable schedules were established because of the daily transmission by telegraph from the Observatory signaling noon. Maury, already known as the “Pathfinder of the Seas, ” was a Southerner. When Maury’s native state of Virginia seceded in April 1861, Maury tendered his resignation as superintendent and joined the Confederate cause. Three days later, LT James Gilliss, the man who designed and outfitted the Observatory in 1842, was named superintendent. Having waited years to become chief of one of the world’s premier observatories, he found the observatory short-staffed in time of war. Much of his time was directed to support the war by calibration of equipment. But Gilliss was undeterred. He found a backlog of thousands of unreduced star and planet observations. In 1862, he hired a number of civilians, including Asaph Hall, an astronomer. One star-filled night in the summer of 1863, Asaph Hall was working at the Observatory. It was not unusual for “VIPs” to appear unannounced at the Observatory, expecting to be able to peer through the telescope. Hall discovered that he could avoid intruders—even those with congressional prestige—by simply climbing the ladder to the Observation level and shutting the trap door. But on August 22, he was not so successful in avoiding unwanted guests. He heard repeated knocking. Opening the hatch and ready to confront the perpetrator, he quickly changed his mind when he saw a stovepipe hat looming in front of him. A war-weary Abraham Lincoln wanted to gain a moment of solace peering at the heavens through the telescope.

The Observatory became world renowned. Many of its astronomers became active members of the National Academy of Sciences, an organization that Charles H. Davis—Gilliss’s successor—helped found in 1863. Funding for a new telescope was approved in 1871 with the condition that it had to be the finest and largest telescope in the world. When Congress approved the appropriation for the Observatory’s original telescope, the country had no domestic manufacturer to make it. By 1870, the most skilled artisans of optical instruments in the world were in Massachusetts. They were hired to build the 26-inch telescope for a price of $40,000 in gold. In the mid-1870s, the Observatory’s central dome was also used to establish—by telegraph—the longitudinal boundaries of many cities and several states in the West.

By 1876, more than 60 volumes of astronomical and meteorological observations, sailing directions, fundamental star positions, expedition reports, and longitude determinations were published. The staff on Observatory Hill in Foggy Bottom experienced annual occurrences of malaria that put them out of commission. Repeated denial of funding for ongoing routine maintenance left the facility in a state of disrepair. And the limited night sky visibility (on average, only 17 totally clear nights a year in Foggy Bottom) resulted in the telescope being moved to its present location in 1893 to Observatory Circle on Massachusetts Avenue NW—where it still functions. President John Quincy Adams was correct. The sciences were vitally important as to how the world viewed the young nation. The work from this Observatory by men such as Maury, Hall, and others set the baseline of modern oceanographic and meteorological sciences from which the entire world has benefited.[3]

The observatory operated from 1844 to 1893 when it was closed in favor of a new U.S. Naval Observatory facility on Massachusetts Avenue. The building and grounds were retained by the U.S. Navy, which first used it to house the Naval Museum of Hygiene from 1894 to 1902. Beginning in 1903, the Naval Medical Hospital was constructed on the grounds, and it remained in use until 1942, when hospital operations were transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.[4] It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965.[2][5]

The Washington meridian passed through the Observatory.

The facility housed the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery until 2012.[6] The grounds and observatory are closed to the public. The entire Navy Hill is being transferred to the United States Department of State due to Base Realignment and Closure, and the Navy will be moving out. The Central Intelligence Agency's forerunner, the Office of Strategic Services was a tenant on the Hill during World War II, and the United States Public Health Service had a hospital there.

In 2014, the Department of State began expanding into the Navy Hill. A joint venture consisting of the architectural firms of Goody, Clancy and the Louis Berger Group won a $2.5 million contract in January 2014 to begin planning the renovation of the buildings on the 11.8 acres (48,000 m2) Navy Hill campus.[7]


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  2. ^ a b "Old Naval Observatory". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-05-12. 
  3. ^ Foggy Bottom News Vol.49 no.16 March 2008
  4. ^ Inci A. Bowman (September 13, 2006). "Historic Medical Sites in the Washington, DC Area". National Library of Medicine. 
  5. ^ Blanche H. Schroer and Steven H. Lewis (March 3, 1977). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Old Naval Observatory" (PDF). National Park Service.  and Accompanying nine photos, exterior and interior, from 1873, 1975, and undated
  6. ^ Pilip-Florea, Shonona. "Navy Medicine Headquarters Moves to Falls Church, Va." America's Navy May 30, 2012 Accessed 2014-05-16.
  7. ^ Sernovitz, Daniel J. "Boston Firm Picked for State Department Consolidation." Washington Business Journal. January 14, 2014. Accessed 2014-01-14.

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