NORFOLK (NNS) -- During its first 176 years, one of the most historic and revered residences of the United States Navy hosted U.S. Presidents, governors, royalty, ambassadors, celebrities, and had been home to dozens of Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) commanders.
But in the early morning hours of August 12, 2014, as flames engulfed the second story of Quarters A during a three-hour blaze, it initially appeared the home may had hosted its last dignitary and been home to its final commander.
But just as the shipyard itself was burned multiple times in its 250-year history, only to rebuild and become stronger than ever, so too has Quarters A undergone a major restoration, with a ribbon-cutting held June 15, 2017.
While the fire consumed much of the top portion of the house, the water required to put it out damaged much of the rest of the residence. "So much water was poured into it that house that basically it had to be taken down to the studs," said Naval Facilities Mid-Atlantic Project Manager Doug Lyons. "All the drywall, all the floors, all the electrical had to be replaced. All new HVAC, kitchen and bathrooms."
With the charred husk of the house "opened to the sky," as Lyons described it, emergency roof repairs were quickly performed. Quarters A is now owned by Lincoln Military Housing, so coordination was required between Lincoln, the Navy and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) on planning the rest of the restoration efforts. "Lincoln did a tremendous amount of coordination with the insurance company," said Lyons. "It needed to be restored the way it was for SHPO. SHPO agreed to a few [modifications] to make it more livable but it all had to be coordinated."
Major reconstruction began in early 2016, with Lyons performing a final walkthrough in April. "It looks beautiful!" Lyons said. "They did an awesome job. The Lincoln development construction people are excellent."
Following the 2014 fire, local media outlets erroneously reported that Quarters A had previously burned at the onset of the Civil War. While the shipyard was all but thoroughly torched in April 1861 by the evacuating Confederacy, Quarters A was oddly spared, either because it lacked military value or simply "out of respect," according to shipyard historian Marcus Robbins.
Completed in 1838 and on the National Register of Historic Places, Quarters A is rife with striking architectural qualities such as its marble mantels, exterior curving staircases with iron railings, and large arches separating its reception rooms. The house boasts many features adopted from the 1830 book The Practical House Carpenter, which advocated Greek architecture in the United States during the period. Additions to the home, including two wings and several porches, were made in 1890 and 1910.
Among the thousands of visitors to Quarters A have been shipyarders and their families during Family Days and other events, as well as the citizenry on Virginia Garden Tours and Portsmouth Historic Homes Tours. Following the June 15 ribbon-cutting, Shipyard Commander Captain Scott Brown and his wife Missy opened their home for hundreds of shipyard employees to tour. Captain Brown greeted visitors at the entrance, even speaking with a first responder to the house fire, while Missy met visitors throughout the house, even meeting a son of a former shipyard commander who had lived in Quarters A in the mid-1970s.
Capt. Brown sees the restoration of his home in a broader context, drawing parallels to the renovation of the shipyard in its work, training and safety improvements since 2014. "Almost three years ago, a fire destroyed this house, three days before my family and I were slated to move in," he said. "Since then, we have been working diligently to restore it and modernize it to its deserved greatness. History abounds. The reopening of this house represents the return of NNSY's status as a leader in the community and the leader in world class warship repair for our Navy and country."
There's A Log and History of Quarters A, a book started in 1963 capturing thoughts and memories from shipyard commanders and their esteemed visitors. Fittingly enough, it was another Shipyard Commander Brown-- Rear Adm. James Brown--who wrote in the A Log and History of Quarters A: "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."
As both a symbol of gracious living and a historical shrine, the legacy of Quarters A will continue long after the dark morning hours of August 12, 2014.
(Former Public Affairs Officer Joe Law contributed to this report.)
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