Historic Houses of Charlestown: The Commandant’s House

One of six early federal navy yards, the Charlestown Navy Yard was established in 1800. The United States Navy was rooted in the Continental Navy and in 1794, Congress passed the Navy Act to protect threats to overseas interests on the oceans of the world following the American Revolution. In 1798 Benjamin Stoddart, the first Secretary of the Navy, recognized a need to establish federal navy yards as opposed to contracting private ship builders to build ships, which was the case with the USS Constitution launched in 1797. The other five yards were, and still are, in Portsmouth, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Norfolk, and they served the 16-state union. With the exception of Norfolk, which was established in 1767 under the British flag, the other five were established between 1799 and 1801.

Providing seasonal sustenance on Boston Harbor, the Charlestown Peninsula, originally known as Mishawum  (Great Springs) had been occupied by indigenous Native Americans for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Puritans in 1630. Of note, a very large number of the indigenous people of the Boston Basin, known as the Massachusett or Massachuseuck, had been wiped out around 1619 by European diseases as they lacked immunity to smallpox, influenza, and other diseases. Because of the diminished native population, it must have been relatively easy to establish a settlement at Charlestown.

So, following the Revolution and the burning of the town, in 1800 the US Navy commenced work on what was initially called the Boston Navy Yard. The first buildings were the Navy Store (now the NPS Visitor Center), the Marine Barracks, various Officers Quarters, and the Commandant’s House, sited on a rise overlooking  Boston Harbor and the Parade Ground. It was completed in 1805. The design of the house reflected the influence of the early Federal period. 

The home provided housing for the many Commandants of the Navy Yard and their families for over 170 years. The first Commandant was Captain Samuel Nicholson, followed by Captain William Bainbridge, Captain Isaac Hull and many other. The Commandant directed the military aspect of the yard, but also directed the industrial and shipbuilding aspect. He also effectively acted as a diplomat for the Navy, opening the house for many special and ceremonial occasions. Guests included James Monroe, Andrew Johnson, and the Marquis de Lafayette.

The house was specifically designed for servants, as many were required. The staff would have included cooks, mess attendants, the Commandant’s private barge crew, gardeners, chauffeurs, and personal maids, all providing services to the Commandants and their families. Like ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, the service areas were partitioned from the public and family areas by halls, back stairways, back entrances, doors, etc. The first floor would have been used by the occupying family, but it needed to be at the ready for entertaining. The family retained private quarters on the second floor, and the service areas were on the ground floor as well as the third floor.

For many, many years the house was thought to be designed by the well-known architect Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844 b. Boston). This conclusion was drawn in part because of the use of the double bowfront motif that he had used on other Federal period buildings. After many decades of exhaustive research, experts feel that the most likely designer was the English architect George Hadfield (1763-1826) who was working in Washington DC at the time, where he is known to have designed the Marine Corps Commandant’s House (1801). Other notable Hadfield buildings were the original Treasury Department building (1800, no longer extant) and the Curtis Lee Mansion in Arlington, VA (1818). 

Over the years, many additions and modifications were made to the Commandant’s House both inside and out. It was painted white for over 100 years, later restored. In 1938, the WPA made some interior alterations, but notably added a sun porch and arches at the basement level under previously constructed flanking side balconies. These additions, although functionally sensible, permanently obscured the lower portion of the double bays.

Many of the Commandants were keen on creating a park like atmosphere and planted numerous shrubs, flowers and trees over the decades including such species as elms, pines, common ash, maples, apple trees and pear trees, just to name a few. In the 19thC, the home and parts of the adjacent yard presented an almost country estate atmosphere. The house in early times was surrounded by land, not just within the yard, but also to the north  where fields still existed. 

The Yard grew in the 19th C. from 25 acres to 100 acres. By the 20th C, the original structures had been replaced by over 100 buildings. This was a greatly changed Navy Yard which was adapting to the industrial age. Instead of frigates, the Yard was building modern day warships.

The former Salem Turnpike,  which ran behind the house and was the main route north in earlier times, became Chelsea Street. As Charlestown grew in population, housing stock and industry, the bucolic atmosphere of the original Navy Yard and its surroundings was replaced by adjacent traffic, dust, vibrations, streetcars, odors, noise, etc. The industrial nature of the yard itself also contributed to this increasing noise and air pollution. Welcome to the modern world.

Closed in 1974, the Navy Yard has been successfully repurposed into residential, office, research, and medical space, and it is a pleasant, peaceful place to walk and spend time along the Harbor . . . but it is nice to imagine an earlier time when officers and their ladies promenaded down Commandant’s Avenue among the poplars and plantings . . .with a fresh breeze coming off Boston Harbor. (Additional images at Nancy.Kueny.com/Blog)

Sources: National Park Service, Public Place, Private Home by Margaret A. Micholet (1986), Boston Landmarks Commission, Boston Public Library Glass Slide Collection, Digital Commonwealth, Wikipedia

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