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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

History Matters: The Great Quarters “A” Fire of August 12, 2014

Blog #34. August 12, 2014 By Marcus W. Robbins

As I opened my email this morning, I was in shock as I viewed a Google news feed link relating to a recent fire at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. It was hard to wrap my mind around what I read and then viewed with the related local video feed. I was watching the Shipyard Commander’s home, Quarters “A” located in Portsmouth, Virginia, upon the grounds of the nation’s oldest continuing operating naval shore establishment in flames. The fire had started around 2:00 in the morning and the events and cause were still unfolding just a few short hours later.

Fire at Norfolk Naval Shipyard ~ Quarters "A" on August 12, 2014
Photo courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins
Being recently retired as of August 1 this year after serving the bulk of my 36 years, 9 months and 12 day career at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, repeatedly passing by this historic landmark was commonplace. Over my tenure I worked around it as a tradesman, wrote repair specifications for it while in the Public Works Facilities Service Contracts Division for the 5 years I tended to the Family Housing Contract, and more recently informed the recent occupants of little known fun facts concerning Quarters “A” as the yard’s local Historian while also serving as the Command Facilities Program Manager.

To put it simply I have a deep connection with this home even to the point of my wife Jo Ann and I being invited a couple of years ago to a formal Christmas gathering; these are the things that happy memories are made of. Ask anyone whom has ever entered into this home of their feelings and you will understand of the pride that Quarters “A” radiates.

The home is to put it simply, iconic. It is our flagship residence. Quarters “A” stands as a symbol of both elegance and long standing naval tradition. It spans from the rapid growth of the Gosport Shipyard pre-Civil War era up into our modern times. The home was begun in 1837, and the central brick section was first occupied in 1838 by Shipyard Commander Captain Lewis Warrington. That’s right, Quarters “A” is 177 years young and just as strong as the day it was born.

To each and every member of the NNSY Shipyard family both past and present, today should be a sad one. We have lost a part of a good friend, yet from the outward appearance all may not be lost. It should be our hope that this Phoenix shall rise from the ashes and live again.

The remainder of this column shall be extracted passages from the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission document submitted on November 19, 1974, that nominated not only Quarters A but also the nearby Quarters B & Quarters C to the National Register of Historic Places as follows:

Quarters A, B, and C at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard are handsome and finely crafted examples of Asher Benjamin’s Greek Revival style and illustrate in striking form the pervasive national influence of architectural handbooks among builder-craftsmen of the early-nineteenth century. In addition they are relics, along with their contemporary, the nearby Drydock No. 1, of a period of rapid expansion for the United States and the original Gosport Navy Yard following the War of 1812. After the War of 1812, a systematic effort to expand and improve the facilities at Portsmouth began.

All three of these houses survived the burning of the Gosport Navy Yard by evacuating Union forces in 1861 and another by departing Confederate forces the next year. Well maintained, they continue to serve as residences for high ranking officers of the Yard.

A set of plans for Quarters A, built c. 1837, refer to this building as the Commandant’s House. Larger and more formal than the other two, it is a two-story, Flemish-bond brick structure set on a high basement and covered by a hipped roof with interior end chimneys. The central entry, with its Doric pilasters, plain full entablature, the blocking course, is taken directly from Plate 28 of Asher Benjamin’s The Practical House Carpenter (1830), with minor addition of a transom light. Two curving flights of stairs with original iron railings ascend to a landing at the front-door level. The three-part windows, each consisting of a pair of two-over-two sash flanking a six-over-six window, have ramped white marble lintels with corner blocks. Frame, two-story sun porches with bracketed cornices have been added to the side and to the rear of Quarters A. The latter, with its fantastically carved pilasters and elaborate jig-sawn balusters is a handsome example of its style.

Quarters A’s plan has been slightly modified by the cutting of large arches between the reception rooms. Paralleling its central entrance hall, to the left is a service passage off which the house’s northeast corner is an elliptical stair with eased and scrolled banister, derived from Plate 62 of Benjamin’s Practical House Carpenter. Farther down the passage is a pantry. To the right of the entrance hall is the dining room, and the rear half of the arch with corner block imposts, a central tablet, and symmetrically molded trim. The second-floor plan is similar to the first, but double doors, rather than an open arch, separated the two chambers. Much original detail remains in the house including paneled window reveals, simple marble mantels, and Greek-fret stair brackets.

As Mr. Joe Law stated in his prior writings - of all the residents and recollections over the years, perhaps no entry in A Log and History of Quarters A is more poignant than that of Rear Admiral Brown, who wrote, “May Quarters A continue as long as the shipyard and remain the symbol of gracious living befitting the responsibilities of the shipyard commander, as well as an historical shrine.”

Today was a sad day at Norfolk Naval Shipyard if you only look at the plain brick and mortar of a facility, but due to the craftsmanship put forth 177 years ago today’s event - The Great Quarters “A” Fire of August 12, 2014, will in time be looked at in a more favorable light as something that "was" overcome. Just as our NNSY motto is Any Ship, Any Time, Any Where I venture to say that land based events like this are important too because – history matters”.

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