NUWC Division, Keyport's History Begins with One Building

Story Number: NNS190904-03Release Date: 9/4/2019 9:08:00 AM
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By Nathanael Miller, Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division, Keyport Public Affairs

KEYPORT, Wash. (NNS) -- At first glance, the old brick building in the middle of Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division, Keyport looks like it’s due for demolition.

Building 1, a relic from a bygone century, is lonely and isolated with its old brick walls cordoned off by a chain link fence festooned with brightly colored “Do Not Enter” and “Hardhats Required” safety signs.

Building 1, however, is finding new life. Ironically, part of its new “incarnation” will be a reversion to its original appearance with space set aside for historical displays telling its story even as new engineers take up residence. The renovation project is possible because rehabilitating Building 1 is far more cost-effective than demolishing it and building a new structure would be, thereby furthering a culture of affordability at NUWC Division, Keyport.

“Building 1 was the first purpose-built building for the Navy on this base,” said Holly Giermann, a Naval Acquisition Development Program intern working in NUWC Division, Keyport’s Infrastructure Division. Giermann, who holds a master’s degree in architectural conservation from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, has been tasked with recording the timeline of Building 1’s future redevelopment as well as providing guidance on what architectural features should be retained for historical preservation.

Giermann said ground was broken for the facility in July 1915, a year after the Navy acquired the land at Keyport, and the structure was completed later that same year. The warehouse-like facility, complete with an indoor bridge crane, enabled the early torpedo station to begin storing, overhauling and testing weapons while the rest of the fledgling base was still under construction.

“By 1917 they had finished Building 12,” Giermann said. Torpedo storage duties were moved out of Building 1, but Building 1 was still the center of maintenance and construction.

“They added work benches and a railroad to the torpedo pier,” said Giermann.

Building 1’s history is not entirely clear-cut. Structures like Building 1 were often one-off designs built to meet specific needs in the early 20th century. Giermann said such structures are referred to as “industrial vernacular,” with the word “vernacular” indicating the building was built of whatever materials were common to the local community at that time.

“They had bricks. They had a lot of bricks,” Giermann said. Several brick production companies operated in the Seattle area in 1915, providing a cost-effective building material for the structure.

Another aspect making the historian’s job more difficult is the presence of a structure sharing a wall with Building 1: the large, blocky facility currently designated Building 234.

Giermann said the original plans for Building 1 called for an eastern wing with a power plant in it, but it is not clear if the wing was built in 1915 or 1917. Known as the “power station,” it is possible the shell was completed in 1915, but there are records stating the generators were not installed until 1917. Despite sharing a wall with Building 1, the “power station” has come to be regarded as a separate structure and is today known as Building 234. However, Building 234 is physically tied to Building 1, requiring it to be rehabilitated as well in order to ensure the integrity of both structures.

Although Building 1 started life as a torpedo repair facility with some administrative functions included, it evolved rapidly.  A 1938 photograph shows a new office for the base commanding officer being completed on the building’s second floor, thus bolstering the administrative work on Building 1’s resume’. Weapons work began to move out of Building 1 and around the base as systems evolved.

“As the torpedoes started changing they started expanding the base,” Giermann said.  “We know around the 1940s they started these radical modifications to Building 1.” The 1938 commander’s office was built to match the original exterior of the building and ties in so smoothly it is not immediately noticeable as a later addition. However, by the dawn of World War II, the Navy was haphazardly altering Building 1.

Thirty years later Building 1 was still humming away as a multi-use structure, but its interior was a maze of spaces hastily repurposed over the past three decades. However, Building 1 was clearly beginning to deteriorate. The building was abandoned in 2007, its share of lead paint, asbestos, mold and mildew making it unsafe to work in.

 As Building 1 neared its 100th birthday in 2015, it began to look as if it would be torn down because the valuable land in the center of NUWC Division, Keyport was needed for a working facility. However, Building 1’s story was not quite over yet, because Building 1 was suddenly gaining attention.

“I think it was the historic aspect that people took interest in,” Giermann said. “The building’s exterior still clearly shows the lines of its 1915 origin, and it is the earliest and most direct connection to the founding years of NUWC Division, Keyport.”

Naval Sea Systems Command’s (NAVSEA) Campaign Plan 2.0 is the strategic vision guiding NAVSEA and its subordinate commands, such as NUWC Division, Keyport. Part of the Campaign Plan 2.0 vision is maintain a culture of affordability while equipping and empowering NAVSEA’s personnel with the right tools and facilities. When the facilities team at NUWC Division, Keyport proved they could save a great deal of money by rehabilitating Building 1 into a modern center of innovation, the project got underway.

The first phase of that project was the selective demolition to restore the 1915 appearance of the building along with the abatement of lead paint and other health and environmental hazards. With that phase complete, the NUWC Division, Keyport facilities team can begin planning the new interior layout of Building 1, including deciding which interior architectural features will be kept to maintain the tie back to NUWC Division, Keyport’s earliest days.

Giermann said she is happy the story of Building 1, now just over 100 years old, is beginning again.


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