The oldest continually active post in the Marine Corps, the U.S. Marine Corps Barracks and the adjacent Marine Corps Commandant's House represent the important role the Marine Corps has played in the defense of the nation since the early days of the Republic. The site became the headquarters of the Marine Corps in 1801. Troops quartered at the Barracks played significant roles in the wars with the Barbary pirates (1801-1805), the War of 1812, the capture of John Brown at Harper's Ferry (1859), and the conquest of Cuba in the Spanish-American War (1898). It also served, and continues to serve, as the official home of the U.S. Marine Band, which has long been the official band of the President of the United States. The Commandant’s House is the oldest standing public building in Washington with the exception of the White House. Built in 1806 with major modifications made between 1903 and 1907, it has housed influential Marine leaders, all of whom played vital roles in the development of the modern Marine Corps.
In 1800, the Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddard, ordered that the newly-organized U.S. Marine Corps (which originated from the Continental Marines of 1775) be headquartered in Washington, DC. Along with President Thomas Jefferson, the second US Marine Corps commandant, Lt. Col. William Ward Burrows, scoured the city to find a suitable location. They decided on a tract of land near the Washington Navy Yard in the southeast quadrant of the city because of its short marching distance to the U.S. Capitol. The commandant ran an advertisement offering $100 for the best design for a barracks and commandant's house. George Hadfield, an English architect who had served as Superintendent of Capitol Construction, submitted the winning plans. The Barracks would be arranged in a quadrangle format with buildings surrounding a central, rectangular parade ground. Due to insufficient Congressional funding, Marines performed much of the construction work themselves. Hadfield later designed the District of Columbia City Hall, also a National Historic Landmark, in 1820.
During the War of 1812, Marines from the Barracks held back the British in Bladensburg, Maryland, delaying the enemy’s advance into the Capital for two hours. The British burned many important public buildings in the city. Unlike the adjacent Navy Yard, the Marine compound escaped unscathed.
In 1820, when Archibald Henderson moved into the Commandant's House, he also ushered in a new era of Marine Corps history. Over the next 38 years, Henderson transformed the Marines into a modern military cadre of elite soldiers. Desirous of making the Marines the world's finest fighting men, Henderson required that every new officer of the Corps be stationed for a time at the Barracks, where they could receive training under his supervision.
While the Marines saw little significant combat during the Civil War, one branch of the Corps prospered at this time. The Marine Band had always been popular, playing for every President since John Adams, but it had not been recognized by law until 1861. In the post-war era, the Marine Barracks witnessed a significant epoch in American musical history when John Philip Sousa, the "March King," served as its leader between 1880 and 1892. During this time, Sousa composed national hits such as “Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Semper Fidelis.” The Marine Band is still stationed at the Barracks and remains the official White House musical unit.
From 1891 to 1903, the Barracks saw another period of growth in the Marine Corps. Commandant Charles Heywood began emphasizing new military tactics and expanding Marine Corps responsibilities. The growth of the Marine Corps changed the function of the Barracks. In 1901, Heywood transferred the Marine headquarters to offices in downtown Washington. By 1911, the Barracks had also lost its recruit training function, which transferred to Parris Island depot in South Carolina.
Early in the 20th century, the Marine Barracks underwent extensive renovation. The 2-story, brick Commandant's House is the only structure remaining of the original barracks complex. Other structures on the old grounds, erected between 1904 and 1907, include a barracks building, a band hall, and a row of five officers' quarters. The Barracks' function has become increasingly ceremonial. At present, the post consists of the Commandant's House, the headquarters of the Marine Band, and a contingent of Marines who perform various ceremonial duties at the White House, Arlington National Cemetery, and elsewhere. With its striking mansard roof (added in 1891), the Commandant’s House and the campus serve as a testament to the growth and expansion of the U.S. Marine Corps and its vital role in America’s military history.
For more information, visit the Marine Corps website
National Historic Landmark Nomination of the U.S. Marine Corps Barracks and Commandant's House
National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) are historic places that possess exceptional value in commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States. The National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program oversees the designation of such sites. There are just over 2,500 National Historic Landmarks. All NHLs are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.