This is one of the most interesting puzzles to surface in the District this year. The mysterious wooden box, known as the Nooner, has stood abandoned for 20 years and for at least 10 years has appeared to defy police-construction codes at 518 Water St. NW in Georgetown.
Like many vacant buildings in a change-over neighborhood, the Nooner has mostly been ignored by a few official entities: The District, Maryland and the Army Corps of Engineers. In the past, the military service could keep or destroy the building if it was deemed dangerous, but not if it was “functionally obsolete.” Officials have left the structure in front of some real estate developers, who are considering renovations, but no action has been taken yet. The National Park Service and DC government seem to have stopped paying attention altogether.
And what is it? A call placed to the state of the building by a DC Parks spokeswoman was referred to the US Army Corps of Engineers. (The Corps said in an email that it has had no idea what it is, and expressed concern about losing its records.) DC Parks spokeswoman Kathryn Longo referred other inquiries to the Army Corps of Engineers.
In an interview last year, Army Corps spokesman Joshua Greenstein, said the Corps had a value safety assessment that had been received for the building “throughout the ’90s” — then nothing.
“It is 25 years old,” Greenstein said, adding: “The building has historically been on a river — now it’s on a shore. It would be pretty unusual to find a building like that and not know what it is.”
The Navy brought the structure there at the start of World War II, and it remained part of a radar station after the war. Later, the Monitor — another ship-turned-radar station — stood nearby. But the Nooner has come and gone throughout the decades. It seemed to become a homeless shelter before it was torn down in 1996. But since then, it has spent the past decade or so to sit empty, the gray colored rafters rusting along one wall and crumbling floors between the façade and the sidewalk.
Laura Brown from DC City Neighborhoods, is in charge of a group of government agencies that have received calls from concerned citizens asking if the building is structurally sound. (DC lawyers confirmed in a letter to Brown in January that the Army Corps is the responsible agency under the city code.)
Brown said that when she, a professional architect, recently looked at the building she thought it appeared to be stabilized at least on the internal walls, which showed signs of wear in some places. “Someone looked at the components that go into a building like that, and they definitely didn’t cause any visible damage or disease,” she said.
A memo written by DC attorney Ariel Lebwohl, seen by The Washington Post, refers to the Nooner as “frozen in time.” In the past year, Lebwohl said she has received calls from concerned citizens about the safety of the building. DC Parks reopened a picture of the vessel to the town-gown World War II era in an effort to get more insight into what it is.
A real estate broker in Georgetown who has been marketing some buildings that have caught on with residents said he believed it could be used as a classroom facility — similar to a community college — or for offices.
There is a little-known resource on the internet that could shed light on the building’s previous life and the Army Corps’ inaction for almost 20 years: The US Census Bureau’s online Visual Fleet Search. It has, since 2008, cataloged every vessel on the country’s waterways, including radar stations.