Depicting the world of the Bell family during the early years of Washington, D.C., presented its own unique challenges. The events of the film occur during a decade of change in the national capitol. Between 1836 and 1848, D.C., was a growing city, and many of the buildings we recognize today looked differently in their earlier forms. This was true of the Navy Yard where Daniel Bell and Robert Armstead worked. As a researcher on the film, I was tasked with determining how the Navy Yard would have appeared during their employment, including the steam engine and foundry in the blacksmith shop as well as the iconic Latrobe Gate at the entrance to the yard. In the film, we see blacksmiths at work in the anchor shop, but what would that have looked like in 1848?
It was surprisingly difficult to find descriptions of the workings of the Navy Yard from this time period. Visitors to Washington often described their tour of the Navy Yard, but provided little detail from a visual perspective. Anne Newport Royall (1826) and Jonathan Elliot (1830) were the most useful in their written sketches of the yard, describing the number of forges, furnaces, and steam engines. An historian, Elliot provided a detailed explanation of the complex network of machinery powered by the Navy Yard’s lone 14 horsepower steam engine that conveyed power and motion to “two saw gates, . . . two hammers for forging anchors, &c., two large hydraulic bellows, two circular saws, one turning and boring lathe, . . . nine turning lathes, five grind stones, four drill lathes . . . with other machinery, required to facilitate the operations of the several departments in the adjoining buildings.”
Government documents published in Congressional records provided further information on the steam engine and its evolution. By 1838, the 14 horsepower engine had been replaced twice and was running at 40 horsepower output.
Royall’s description of the Navy Yard was more more literary and evocative than Elliot’s. It did not provide specifics about the arrangement or layout of the buildings, but it does give us a window into how the space felt to her at the time—a white, middle class woman in 1824.* The filmmakers were looking for what the Navy Yard sounded like and an overall vibe of the place as a setting. This is where Royall could help.
“The shops are large and convenient; they are built of brick and covered with copper to secure them from the fire. . . . The number of hands employed vary; at present there are about 200. . . . The whole interior of the yard exhibits one continual thundering of hammers, axes, saws, and bellows, sending forth such a variety of sounds and smells, from the profusion of coal burnt in the furnaces, that it requires the strongest nerves to sustain the annoyance. The workmen are as black as negroes, and the heat of the furnaces at this season of the year, (June,) is insupportable to one not accustomed to it. The whole is one scene of activity, not one is idle.”
Because there are no photographs of the Navy Yard during this period, we must rely upon written descriptions and the very few artistic renderings from the time. A Master Plan published by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in 1979 contained drawn plans showing the evolution of the layout of the Navy Yard from 1799 to 1814 to 1828 to 1866 and beyond. Animators used the information in these plans to reimagine the Navy Yard as it would have looked in 1836 and 1848.
One of the buildings to undergo significant changes was the Latrobe Gate. Originally built as a one-story gatehouse, a second story was added to the guardhouses in 1823. It was eventually renovated further still in 1881 to the three-story Victorian building we see today. Prior to the 1881 renovations, a survey was made of the building which 3D animator Sirrena Infiniti Holmes used to create her model of the gatehouse as it would have appeared during the events depicted in The Bell Affair.
Elliot, Jonathan. Historical Sketches of the Ten Miles Square Forming the District of Columbia (1830), 176-182.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Navy Yard, Main Gate, Eighth & M Streets Southeast, Washington, District of Columbia, DC, 1933.
H.R. Doc. No. 21, 25th Cong., 3d Sess. (1838), pp. 355-56.
Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Chesapeake Division, Washington Navy Yard Master Plan (1979).
Royall, Anne Newport. Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the United States (New Haven, Conn: Barrett Library 1826), 140-143.
* For more on Anne Newport Royall, see Cynthia Earman, “An Uncommon Scold,” Library of Congress Information Bulletin vol. 59, no. 1 (January 2000).