Norfolk might have remained a sleepy southern town until late in the twentieth century had the U.S. Navy not established a base within its borders at the outset of World War I. Home to the Atlantic Fleet, the North American headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and thousands of military and civilian personnel, the Norfolk Naval Base is reputedly the world's largest, a sprawling compound that includes many sites of architectural and historic interest.
The genesis of the base can be traced to 1907, the year Norfolk hosted the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition in honor of the 300th anniversary of Virginia. In preparation for the event, several hundred acres of wetlands were cleared and drained north of the city overlooking Hampton Roads, the shipping channel that links the Chesapeake Bay with the Elizabeth and James rivers. An architectural team
Although the exposition lost money, it was an economic boon to the city as a whole. When it closed in the fall of 1907, some farsighted citizens began lobbying Congress for the establishment of a naval base on the former fairgrounds. President Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet had called at the exposition, proving the suitability of the site for harboring oceangoing vessels. Not until the United States entered World War I, however, did Congress authorize the new base. Construction began in the summer of 1917 under the supervision of Neff and Thompson, a Norfolk firm. Many of the exposition buildings were retained but converted to military use. The former History Building was made into a gymnasium (1907, Gilbert Street, N-24), while the east and west wings of the former Administration Group (Gilbert Street, N-21 and N-23) were rebuilt as part of the Naval Command Headquarters. The central, domed building of the Administration Group was destroyed by fire in 1941, and its stripped classical replacement (1942, Giffles and Vallet, N-26) has Art Deco touches. The base grew by leaps and bounds before, during, and after World War II, and it has continued to expand even during the military retrenchment of the post–Cold War era. The Naval Base Norfolk 2010 Land Use Plan (EDAW, Inc., with Patton, Harris, Rust, and Associates and Shriver and Holland Associates) will guide redevelopment into the twenty-first century.