Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Great Arch: Focal Point of the 1907 Jamestown Exhibition

By Katherine A. Renfrew
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Registrar

After months of design and construction delays, funding issues, inclement weather and labor problems, the Government Piers and Great Arch at the Jamestown Exposition finally opened to the public on September 14, 1907, scarcely 16 days and two months shy of the closing of the exposition. According to The Official Blue Book of the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition, 1907, the Government Piers and Great Arch were “the most important single contribution which the United States Government made to the Jamestown Exposition…It was a magnificent gift and added wonderfully to the beauty of the exposition.” Since it was located in front of Raleigh Square, it was one of the principal landscaping features at the exposition. However, it was an eyesore for most of the exposition which had officially opened on April 26, 1907.
Visitors to the Jamestown Exposition of 1907 could buy postcards featuring idealized versions of the exposition grounds at Sewells Point, such as the Great Arch and Government Pier shown here, to send to their friends and loved ones.  The actual scenes they would have encountered, however, were quite different. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection
The Great Arch over the entrance to the Government Piers as it appeared during the Jamestown Exposition of 1907.   (National Archives and Records Administration, NSNorfolk-1907_02 /RG 71-CA, Box 324, Folder C)
The government appropriated $400,000 for the project in June of 1906 with another $65,000 approved for additional dredging the following February. The plans were not submitted by the Exposition’s Board of Design until September of 1906. The contractor, Scofield Company of Philadelphia, began construction sometime in December of the same year.   

Funds for the project were contingent on an agreement between the Jamestown Exposition Company and the government. The company agreed to operate, manage and illuminate the piers at their own expense; and allow any craft that was part of the navy or foreign navy to participate in the celebration and have free access to the basin and piers. 

Measuring 150 between the two sides at the water line and a maximum height of 30 above mean high water, the arch was a “veritable triumph of engineering skill."  The structure was built exclusively of reinforced concrete; and was secured by two hundred and twenty piles driven in the abutment on either side. Pergolas, colonnades and kiosks enhanced its appearance. One of the towers housed a wireless telegraph station which was operated by the government.  The most outstanding feature was the view. When standing at the top of the arch, one “not only [had] the best view of the exposition, but an excellent picture of the surrounding territory."   

The Great Arch offered a picturesque location to hold celebrations. The most notable was held by the Japanese delegation on Japan Day, October 2, 1907.  That evening Harry Tucker, President of the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, welcomed the Japanese. In return, Vice-Consul-General, S. Suzuki and T. Fukushima of Tokio[sic] Academy gave speeches followed by the “Feast of Lanterns” and “Water Carnival." Both were striking displays. Three thousand people carried lighted lanterns across the arch; and boats decorated with lanterns hovered under and around the arch in the basin.  

The Seaplanes and their runways were part of the official “Lagoon” area, October 29, and December 30, 1918. (National Archives and Records Administration, NSNorfolk-1918_12 & _5 / RG 71-CA, Box 324, Folder B & Box 313, Folder C)
Sadly, the arch fell into disrepair after the exposition closed; and was never restored to its former grandeur. In 1917, when the U.S. Navy purchased the property, the basin, piers and arch officially became the “Lagoon” unit where the Navy’s boat crews and seaplanes operated. The “Arch Look-Out Station” tower and telegraph poles were maintained on top of the arch. 

Aerial view of the arch several years after the U.S. Navy moved in.  All the decorative details were removed from the arch and replaced with signal towers.  The buildings on the left and right of the piers were used for seaplane hangars, May, 5, 1919. (National Archives and Records Administration, NSNorfolk-1919_01 / RG 71-CA, Box 312, Folder A)
Up-close image of the arch showing Building 17, the “Arch Lookout Station” in the Lagoon unit, May 2, 1922. (National Archives and Records Administration, NSNorfolk-1922_01 / RG 71-CA, Box 312, Folder C)
By 1928, the Great Arch had ceased to be of any use to the Navy. Largely ignored and unmaintained, the arch became rubble, practically falling into the basin. Original Naval Operating Base maps reveal that the arch was removed sometime between June 1943 and 1944. The Great Arch was no more.

By 1928, Building 17 had been removed and the arch had all but completely fallen in the water.  Both pictures show the deterioration of the arch, February, 10, 1928. (National Archives and Records Administration, NSNorfolk-1928_01 & _02 / RG 71-CA, Box 312, Folder C)

Aerial view of the base showing the arch, May 13, 1941. (National Archives and Records Administration, NSNorfolk-1941_03 / RG 71-CA, Box 312, Folder A)

Aerial view of the base showing the arch, May 13, 1941. (National Archives and Records Administration, NSNorfolk-1941_03 / RG 71-CA, Box 312, Folder A)
This brief history of the Great Arch is the seventh in a series of blogs illustrating the development of Naval Station Norfolk. Unless otherwise noted, the photographs in this series represent the results of a research project seeking images of Hampton Roads naval installations at the National Archives and Records Administration. This research, performed by the Southeastern Archaeological Research, Incorporated (SEARCH) was funded by Commander Navy Region Mid-Atlantic as part of an ongoing effort to provide information on historic architectural resources at navy bases in Hampton Roads. The museum is pleased to present these images for the benefit of the general public and interested historians. As far as we know, all of these images are in the public domain and none of them have been published before.


onehstrybuff said...

Thank you for your research in providing a detailed history lesson to us young whippersnappers...

Hunt Lewis said...

Though not the arch itself,on November 10, 1910, the Virginian-Pilot reported that a Hampton man had proposed converting the Jamestown Exposition piers in to a holding
pond for crabs. The crab catch varied from year to year, and the pond would ensure that a more even supply could be maintained. The crabs claws would be broken so they wouldn't eat each other.