By Amanda Apple, Preservation Officer, Review and Compliance
Until recently, the oldest building at Naval Support Facility (NSF) Indian Head in Southern Maryland was believed to be the watch box (also known as a guard shack). Originally, in 1854, this little yellow building helped secure the Eighth Street entrance of the Washington Navy Yard. The watch box functioned as a sentry post manned by Marines until approximately
1905, after which it was relocated to NSF Indian Head by barge. Munitions produced at the Navy Yard were shipped down the Potomac River for proving at Indian Head on a regular basis, so the inclusion of the 13’x13’ building would not have been considered unusual. At NSF Indian Head, the watch box served as a foreman’s office, the main telephone switch facility, and a grounds store house between 1911 and 1932, after which time it was finally abandoned to the elements. In 1997, the watch box was identified as a contributing element to the Naval Proving Ground Historic District, significant as the original location of the proof work for the Navy Yard, and for its later role in testing smokeless powder manufactured at the nearby Single Base line.
Recently, the Navy decided to demolish its deteriorating and unused Piers 3 and 4 at the Washington Navy Yard, contributing elements to the Central Yard National Historic Landmark. As part of its obligations under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the Navy entered into an agreement with the State Historic Preservation Officers for Maryland and the District of Columbia to mitigate the harm to the historic district caused by the demolition of the piers. All parties agreed that the relocation of the little watch box from NSF Indian Head to its original home at the Navy Yard would help mitigate the loss. NSF Indian Head had no potential beneficial reuse for this building, due to its small size and extensive renovation costs.
In April 2015, the watch box started its journey home to Washington. The 11-ton, Italianate – style building had an internal wood frame fabricated with custom corner angles and cables on the exterior which were attached to a steel beam base, so as help the building maintain its shape and not be damaged in the move. The building was lifted and placed on a remote controlled travel dolly and driven approximately half a mile to the pier at NSF Indian Head, where it was then placed on a barge with a crane. After a five hour barge ride back up the Potomac River, the watch box was offloaded with the crane at the Navy Yard.
The watch box is currently waiting in a parking lot for its final move to West Leutze Park. When the project is complete, the historic watch box will be positioned just south of its original location on the Washington Navy Yard. It will be restored to serve as a historic and educational display. Stay tuned to see the final product in a future post!