McNair’s 140-year-old building slated for renovation

By Leah RubalcabaFebruary 11, 2021

Photo by Jah-Ras (Jah) M. Hodge, USACE Baltimore District
The 140-year-old Bldg.17, known as the Africa Center for Strategic Studies Annex located on the Fort McNair portion of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, will undergo a renovation this year.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Bldg. 17, located on the Fort McNair portion of the base, is one of the three oldest Bldgs. on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall and is slated for a well-deserved renovation this year.

This 1 ½-story brick structure was constructed in 1881 using reclaimed brick from the former Washington Penitentiary that was built between 1825 and 1831. The only part of the penitentiary Bldg. that remains today is Fort McNair’s Bldg. 20.

Bldg. 17 first served as the guardhouse of the Washington Barracks — today’s Fort McNair. Fort McNair originated as a military post in 1791, when Pierre L’Enfant designated 28 acres of what was then known as Greenleaf Point as a military post, named the Washington Arsenal. The post was transferred to Quartermaster Corps in 1878, becoming the Washington Barracks, and in 1948, the barracks was named for Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair.

The only Washington Barracks buildings that exist on Fort McNair today include Bldgs. 17 and 20, along with Bldg. 21, known as the Model Arsenal, built in 1832.

From its beginnings as a guardhouse, Bldg. 17 was converted to housing around 1900 and served as officers’ quarters.

After Fort McNair opened a 9-hole golf course in 1972 in the field just north of Roosevelt Hall, between C and D Streets, Bldg. 17 housed the golf pro-shop for many years. According to Andy Finnerty, recreation specialist with Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, when he arrived at Fort McNair in 1995 to serve as the golf course manager, Bldg. 17 still housed the pro-shop and included a deli that was frequented by golfers and National Defense University students alike. The golf course eventually closed in 2003.

The Africa Center for Strategic Studies moved to Fort McNair in 2004 as a regional center affiliated with NDU. Some of the center’s personnel were housed in Bldg. 17 and, in April 2009, the building came to be known as the Africa Center for Strategic Studies Annex.

The nearly $3 million design build contact for the Bldg. 17 renovation was awarded to XL Construction LLC.

According to project engineer Elihu Hirsch, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, interior demolition work has already begun to expose the original ceiling of the building.

“The 1 ½ story of the building is based on the fact that, historically, the building had an exposed structure that allowed for natural interior lighting through the use of clerestory windows,” said Hirsch.

In architecture, a clerestory is a high section of wall that contains windows above eye level to admit light and fresh air.

“We are planning on restoring the interior of the building, much as it looked originally, by removing much of the interior ceiling to expose the building roof structure and benefit from natural light from the three arched windows,” said Hirsch. “We are now above a drywall ceiling.”

Hirsch added that while the original windows will remain, damaged wood trim at the windows will be replaced. The floor and wall finishes will be updated, with the finishes inside the building restored to the way they existed in the 1800s.

Renovation work will also replace the building’s HVAC and electrical systems, to include lighting. Bldg. 17 will benefit from a new access ramp installed at its entrance, as well as an Americans with Disability Act of 1990-accessible restroom and a secure room for classified communication.

“We will also be removing a nonhistoric addition on the east side of the building that is being used for a storage room,” said Hirsch.

When asked if he had any reservations about working on the 140-year-old building, Hirsch replied, “We do not anticipate any issues with historical preservation. We are working closely with Kelly Whitton (cultural resources manager for Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall), and it is our intent to provide minimal exterior changes and restore the interior to look like it did historically.”

The anticipated completion date is Jan. 23, 2022.