You may have noticed a wooden roof being built over USS Constitution‘s bow. This temporary structure, which will be removed by the end of the restoration, will shield the area from winter weather as work continues on the cutwater, hull planking, and bow bulwarks. It’s not the first time that Constitution has had a temporary roof structure built over her upper deck.

[Courtesy USS Constitution Museum. Photo by Greg M. Cooper Photography.]
A view from Constitution Cam shows the start of construction of the wooden roof on the bow of USS Constitution in October 2015. [Courtesy USS Constitution Museum. Photo by Greg M. Cooper Photography.]
Once finished, the roof will be watertight to protect the vessel and ship restorers from wind and precipitation during the frigid New England winter months.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
Work continues on a roof over the bow of USS Constitution in November 2015. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
The temporary roof is being built around the bowsprit and rests on the bulwarks that surround the head area. Two hundred years ago, the “heads” on Constitution were the toilets for the sailors.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
A interior view of the roof being built on USS Constitution‘s bow. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

2007-2010 Restoration

A much more elaborate roof was constructed in the 2007-2010 restoration. The roof covered the whole of the spar deck, which was completely replaced during that restoration. The structure had to withstand two winters and was covered with a waterproof shield which prevented water from leaking down into the lower decks.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
A view of the aftermost section of the spar deck (note the mizzen mast on the left) as the roof is constructed during the 2007-2010 restoration. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

World War II Era

Roof structures are not unique to the 21st century or to restoration periods. During World War II, a low house was built over the spar deck to protect Constitution during the war years when little-to-no significant maintenance could be done. Her duty during the War was to serve as a place of confinement for officers, who were maintained in the Captain’s Cabins while awaiting courts martial. The low house was removed in March of 1950.

[Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
USS Constitution enters Dry Dock 1 in the Charlestown Navy Yard on July 28, 1945, to have her hull tested and to replace 210 sheets of copper at the waterline.  She left the dry dock on August 2, 1945. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

19th Century

In the late 1800s, Constitution was fitted with a “barn” to turn her into a receiving ship, a place where enlisted sailors would receive their new orders. The watercolor shown below, painted by Hendricks A. Hallett of Charlestown, Massachusetts in the late 19th century, depicts Constitution with her barn at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. This view of “Old Ironsides” against the backdrop of the enormous ship houses at the Portsmouth Yard was frequently painted by local and regional artists.

[USS Constitution Museum Collection, 1753.1]
A watercolor by Hendricks A. Hallett, c. 1883-1897. Note the angled sheer legs off Constitution‘s bow in front of the red structure. [USS Constitution Museum Collection, 1753.1]

As can be seen in the plans below, the receiving ship barn was intended to be a long-term modification to Constitution. The complex two-story structure included upper-story windows, a catwalk across the roof, and rooms and offices built into the superstructure above the stern. Construction was probably completed by the summer of 1883.

[Courtesy National Archives]
An elevation and cross section of the framing for the barn over USS Constitution in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, March 1883. [Courtesy National Archives]
[Courtesy National Archives]
A plan of the finished barn built atop USS Constitution in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, June 1883.[Courtesy National Archives]
Despite the significant change in appearance, Constitution was still recognized as a national symbol. And as such, on a couple of occasions while at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, patriotic associations held commemorative gatherings on her decks.

[USS Constitution Museum Collection, 2034.1]
A photograph taken in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1891 depicting Storer Post No. 1, Grand Army of the Republic, marking the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861. [USS Constitution Museum Collection, 2034.1]
When we look back across the centuries, the U.S. Navy has employed a variety of ways to preserve Constitution. Houses or barns, while not the most attractive coverings, have sufficiently served their purpose. The small house on the bow during the current restoration is one in a long line of temporary or semi-permanent roofs that have extended the life of America’s Ship of State.

The Author(s)

Margherita M. Desy
Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command

Margherita M. Desy is the Historian for USS Constitution at Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston.

Kate Monea
Manager of Curatorial Affairs, USS Constitution Museum

Kate Monea is the Manager of Curatorial Affairs at the USS Constitution Museum.