Africa Center’s Historic Buildings

Outside the Africa Center’s two regional offices in Africa—Addis Abba, Ethiopia, and Dakar, Senegal—the majority of the Center’s faculty and staff work from three very historic buildings on the campus of the Department of Defense’s National Defense University at Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, D.C. The following is a brief history of these remarkable structures.

Building 21: Davis Hall

Early photograph of Davis Hall

Early photograph of Davis Hall

Davis Hall is named in honor of Brigadier General Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr. (1877–1970), the first African-American general in the U.S. Army. Davis Hall today hosts the Academic Affairs, Communications and Community Affairs, and Research staff.

Brigadier General Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr.

Brigadier General Benjamin Oliver Davis, Sr.

Davis Hall was originally named the Model Arsenal and is the last remaining building at Fort McNair from the Washington Arsenal, which was the major distribution center for Union forces during the American Civil War (1861–1865).

During the Civil War, the building, previously known as the “Model office,” was named the “Model Arsenal” because of the extensive collection of ordnance weapons and munitions of war housed there. In a popular handbook on Washington published in 1856, the building was described as a center for models or patterns of arms and military equipment used by U.S. and foreign militaries. Displays included old and new inventions, such as repeating arms and revolvers which had been designed in America and abroad.

Building 20: Grant Hall

President Ulysses S. Grant

President Ulysses S. Grant

The Africa Center’s Office of the Director, Chief of Staff, and Senior French and Portuguese Representatives work from Grant Hall, named in honor of Ulysses S. Grant, General-in-Chief of the Union Army during the Civil War and 18th U.S. President (1869–1877).

In 1826, the Federal Penitentiary was designed by Charles Bulfinch, the Architect of the Capitol at that time. Based on his study of contemporary prisons, Bulfinch observed that they were drastically overcrowded with two or three prisoners in cells originally constructed for an individual prisoner. The Penitentiary thus resulted from ideas generated by the prison reform movement of the 1820’s to transform convicts into model citizens. The essential element of this reform was the placement of prisoners under an iron-clad system of discipline which stressed absolute silence, isolation, hard work, and guidance from a chaplain.

One of the preeminent architects of his day, Bulfinch designed a massive three-story main building, accommodating 160 prisoners, configured in four tiers of 40 cells to a tier. Each cell opened alternately to the north and south, preventing conversation or other communication between the prisoners. To insure privacy, the architect designed the cells to be so small that it would be impossible for more than one prisoner to be housed in a cell—approximately 7 feet by 3-1/2 feet. In 1830-1831, the Penitentiary was expanded by adding a pair of wings to the center cell block, providing room for female prisoners. Today’s Grant Hall remains from the eastern wing. The inmates were to be taught useful occupations at the prison, one of which was shoemaking. Sentenced for federal offenses, the prisoners were not only from the District of Columbia but also from other states, generally numbering 200 inmates.

Courtroom on third floor of Grant Hall where Lincoln conspirators were tried

Courtroom on third floor of Grant Hall where Lincoln conspirators were tried

In 1862, the prison population had increased to 332 because of the addition of about 100 military prisoners. The Arsenal was overcrowded and desperately needed space. As a result, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the removal of prisoners from the Federal Penitentiary to Albany, New York, and the facility was transferred to the War Department.

The Penitentiary became the center of national attention in 1865 when the trial and sentencing of those implicated in the assassination of President Lincoln was held on the third floor of Grant Hall. Four conspirators were sentenced to death, including the first woman executed by federal order, Mary Surratt. The other conspirators, including Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, were sentenced to imprisonment at the Dry Tortugas, Florida.

Cell block of Federal Penitentiary showing second floor and part of third where Lincoln conspirators were imprisoned

Cell block of Federal Penitentiary showing second floor and part of third where Lincoln conspirators were imprisoned

The gallows were constructed in the Penitentiary courtyard (today’s tennis courts directly in front of the Africa Center’s Building 17) and the executions ordered on a sweltering July 7, 1865. This historic event generated such interest that the Potomac River was filled the day of the execution with boats crowded with spectators. Witnesses to the execution included federal troops and 100 civilians. One of the most famous photographers of his time, Alexander Gardner, and his assistant, Timothy O’Sullivan, documented the execution by taking photographs as the events unfolded. The photographers set up their cameras on the second floor of the shoe factory to take the astounding photographs, thereby expanding the new art of photojournalism.

Execution of convicted Lincoln conspirators adjacent to Grant Hall

Execution of convicted Lincoln conspirators adjacent to Grant Hall

With the decline in activity at the Washington Arsenal after the Civil War, it was decided to demolish the Penitentiary except for the eastern and western extensions, which were remodeled by the architect Adolph Cluss. From 1901 to 1914, the Army Engineer School was housed in Grant Hall, prior to its conversion into officers’ quarters. Grant Hall is the last remaining structure representing this remarkable historic legacy associated so dramatically with President Lincoln and Civil War–era Washington, D.C.

Building 17

19h Century view of Building 17

19th-century view of Building 17

Located midway between Davis and Grant Halls and more modest in size, Building 17 currently houses administration staff. It was originally the guard house at the entrance to the Penitentiary and in later years even served as the golf shack for Fort McNair’s former nine-hole golf course.